Warning: Eric Avery pulls no punches.
His artwork is graphic and sometimes horrific. But so is the world of HIV/AIDS, where its victims experience a daily dose of fear, despair and hopelessness.
Those were the conditions Avery discussed with HIV/AIDS clients who visited his exhibit, “The Art of Eric Avery, M.D.: HIV/AIDS Witness, Healer, Survivor” earlier this month in the LSU School of Art’s Alfred C. Glassell Jr. Exhibition Gallery.
The show is a mixture of Avery’s block prints and three-dimensional works. It runs through Sunday, Dec. 7. The show is a part of Prospect.3+Baton Rouge, and the gallery is planning a World AIDS Day reception at 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 1, to feature artwork by the HIV/AIDS clients who visited with Avery.
The Volunteers of America provided the clients. They joined Avery for a walk-through of the exhibit, then returned to the VOA offices to create their own artwork.
But their conversations weren’t about Avery’s block prints of faces, arms and legs. These were scenes they were already experiencing either through their own fight with the disease or someone else’s.
“One man told me of his wife’s drug problem,” says Avery, a retired psychiatrist. “She died, but he cleaned up. He drew a picture of a casket being carried upstairs. I told him that his story is just as much about himself as his wife’s, because he would have died if he hadn’t cleaned up. He’s still here.”
Some are going to be uncomfortable with Avery’s art. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t meant to be.
The people depicted in Avery’s “The Face” project are shown at various stages in the disease. Avery spent 16 years sketching the patients with their consent before creating his molded paper woodcut series.
The faces are haunting, as are Avery’s prints of a client’s arm during a blood test and another’s feet wracked with lesions.
But the piece that commands the most attention is a wall-sized print of instructions on how to use male and female condoms. A toilet seat has been installed next to the instructions, the words “Ye Who Enter Here Abandon All Hope” sandblasted on its surface.
Avery designed it for an exhibit in New York, the idea being those who sit on the toilet seat will stand up with the words printed on their buttocks. The piece is humorous on the surface but carries a heavier message about safe sex and condom use.
“Any time we can get the word out about condoms, that’s a good thing,” Avery says. “The message it out there, but we hear it so much that we don’t hear it anymore.”
His exhibit at the Glassell is the first time Avery says he’s been able to work with different groups while his work is showing. “It’s been terrific for me,” he says of working with the VOA clients.
His visit with them was more than an art talk. From his work in the gallery the clients realized he genuinely understood their plight, which made them comfortable enough to ask questions.
“It gave me a chance to practice medicine aesthetically,” Avery says. “They were asking me about how to deal with depression and how to cope with other everyday problems. We weren’t talking about art, but we were talking among the art, which allowed me to help them.”
Avery, who earned his bachelor’s degree in art from the University of Arizona in 1970 before graduating from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston in 1974, has long been involved in medical activism, working most specifically in Somalia, where Ethiopian refugees had found refuge from oppression in their own country.
Avery depicted this experience in his chosen medium, printmaking, which he says served as therapy for his stress, just as it did later as a consulting psychiatrist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in HIV and Hepatitis C clinics.
His prints can be found in the collections of the Library of Congress, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Wellcome Trust Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine in London.