HIV is such a complicated issue, I wanted to explore it from different sides,” explains University of Utah art professor Kim Martinez. “People think everyone gets it the same way, but everyone’s experience with it is different. It’s no longer a death sentence; now the issue is how we live with it.”
Artists all over the world have taken on the subject of HIV as a means of understanding and coping with the condition. But in her Finch Lane Gallery installation Deconstruction/Reconstruc-tion, Martinez has assembled a collection of works that examines the malady from many perspectives, from oil portraits of those suffering from the disease to visual depictions of deep biological processes and social systems in unconventional media like cast iron, litmus paper and automotive spray paint on aluminum.
She became interested in the subject after being asked to teach a class a year and a half ago to HIV-positive patients, whose works were exhibited at Art Access Gallery. “I make art to help figure out things,” she continues. “I became attuned to what was going on with the disease and came to realize how vulnerable we all are.”
Her last big show dealt with prison issues, focusing on the depersonalized nature of one mode of existence. This show puts the human back in her work, which has often been fixated on mechanical structures. As is the case for many in the arts community, the subject of AIDS cut close to Martinez in a personal way. “A lot of us have lost friends to the disease,” she relates. “There were a lot of emotional ties I let go of. I didn’t have the separation from the subject matter that I did in prison paintings.”
For example, the “Little Death” series, which was painted in a short period of time, reveals close-ups of faces in various states of anguish. “It depicts the impersonalized nature of the intimate,” she asserts. “It’s about being able to see but not touch.”
“AZT-2003,” using glossy automobile spray paint, is an extension of her idea that all things have cultural significance, even textures and surfaces. She got the idea from a kit given out by AIDS intervention centers, which included razors and condoms. It occurred to her that the razors could puncture the condoms in the package. In this piece, the picture is divided into razor-sharp squares of different colors, and circles inside the squares resemble the outline of a condom. If you step away from the work, the pattern of colors make an abstract outline of a human face.
“Delta 32,” a conceptual piece on loosely hung canvas, which Martinez describes as “about hope,” depicts a diagram of a biological structure. She learned that geneticists, in the course of studying ancestors of those who survived Europe’s Black Plague, found that they all had Delta 32--a mutant gene that makes it more difficult to get the HIV virus, as it had helped their predecessors survive an earlier biological scourge.
“Process” is a work composed solely of words describing various aspects of the disease, arranged in a cross-like structure with the four poles labeled “Discrimination,” “Fear,” “Medication” and “Support.” She says they became ideas for individual pieces in the show, from faces tinged with terror to scientific advances. It serves as a kind of touchstone for the entire group. “I always use automatic writing to generate ideas, as a way of organizing my thoughts on a subject,” she observes.
With these images, Martinez reconstructs the human face of a topic that has turned those humans into the abstractions of viral diagrams, the mysterious workings of medicines and statistical tables of lives lost. The series of small oils titled “Dissociation” may depict a face transformed gradually from male to female, but it’s about more than gender. It’s about the fluidity of the human character and ultimately, its resilience.