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Two Stunning Exhibits Highlight the AIDS Epidemic and Sex Trafficking in Black and White

Photo by Kurt Weston

As you sit in the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (OCCCA), the only sound a video of artist Kurt Weston talking about his long battle with AIDs, you are surrounded by walls of black-and-white portraits of his HIV+ friends and lovers—98 percent of whom are dead.

“Remember: An AIDS Memorial Retrospective” is a photographic requiem for those beautiful lost brothers, assembled and curated by legally blind photographer Weston. His decades-long health battle is accompanied by difficult, painful and even tender memories: of muscular black men in black-leather jackets; an Asian couple lost in each other’s arms; a blond white boy with ’80s-style feathered hair; a Latino man holding a crucifix and posing in front of a pair of angel wings; a man dressed in black crouching in front of a graffitied wall; a performance artist sitting onstage, his face crumpled in grief; another man, nude and on all fours, resembling a raging beast, his teeth bared in a roar of pain and anger.

To the opposite effect, one wall is devoted to a Chicago gay-pride event from the early ’80s: bare-chested men, short shorts, moustaches and plenty of drag, although even these relatively happy photos are tainted by the image of a man who is preternaturally thin, caught in the process of a wasting he probably didn’t even understand was happening.

Photo by Kurt Weston

The black-and-white photos, mounted with black matting in place of a frame, are a DIY labor of love. Underfunded, the portraits aren’t always exhibited to their best effect—some of the details aren’t as sharp as they should be, the blacks are a little too black and muddy, or the picture isn’t secured enough to keep it from curling—but this is an honest, tragic bit of history on display. Somebody step in and give local artist Weston some money to ensure this work is still around for the inevitable World AIDS Day a few decades from now.

Fellow disabled artist Barbara Romain’s colorful text-based paintings fit in only peripherally with the show’s theme. Her 72-inch-by-72-inch canvases hang unadorned, crowded with stenciled words and archaic symbols, scribbled song lyrics, and bits and pieces of poetry. They’re cramped, impenetrable things, their beauty often overpowered by their crowded surface. An exception: “Hope and Loss,” an acrylic and collage series of 10 canvases in the shape of a cross. Layered with lottery tickets, coins covered with glitter and variations of the title stenciled on each, they’re an eye-catching, thoughtful bit of mourning on their own.

A phantasmagoria of dicks, bondage, naked bodies, blowjobs and threesomes, Alexandria Allan’s mixed-media paintings have been shunted to OCCCA’s “Mature Content” rear gallery. Wholly focused on sex, her work is a profane, pronounced middle finger to convention and the puritan negativity that often arises when we talk about sexuality. Boldly painted, Allen’s deep reds, greens and golds, as well as her playful German Expressionism, reminded me of a rougher, braver and much more erotic Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. It’s a sex-positive choice to present them alongside Weston’s sobering portraits.

“Remember: An AIDS Memorial Retrospective” at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 117 N. Sycamore St., Santa Ana, (714) 667-1517; www.occca.org [1]. Open Thurs.-Sun., noon-5 p.m. (holiday hours may differ). Through Dec. 29. Free.

Photo by Cecilia Lopez

Across the street, Grand Central Art Center hosts Cecilia Lopez’s “Trafficked,” photographic images built around the narrative of human sexual enslavement. A modest exhibition of six large-format black-and-white prints and six lightboxes, her work accents noir-ish shadows, solitude and power imbalance. We see three people in solitary profile, the sunlight burning them into the gray concrete; a woman reaches out to another; metal grills make one think of jail cells; an elongated reflection of a window becomes an elusive promise of freedom just outside.

The lightboxes allow the monochromatic images more dimension, the simple push of light through the whiter sections of the images giving them a dramatic visual punch. They’re also denser, less easy to parse: A king chess piece stands by itself at left, lightboxes with images of pawns to its right. That power dynamic—the solitary male towering over the weaker, smaller pieces in a game of chess—is reinforced by a nearby image of a man’s large shadow near what resembles a playground.

Photo by Cecilia Lopez

Lopez’s photographs work on an effectively symbolic level—easy to interpret, sometimes even obviously so. She doesn’t rub our face in her social concerns, but there’s a hesitant, beat-around-the-bush mentality to the endeavor that seems at odds with John Spiak’s curating statements about the project as a response to the silence surrounding the issue. The lack of accompanying statistics and clear information about sexual trafficking, especially locally, and the focus on art instead of action made me wish the artist had worked a little harder to actually do something about the issue.

Something more than just subtly reminding us it’s there.

“Trafficked: Cecilia Lopez” at Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233; www.grandcentralartcenter.com [2]. Open Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (holiday hours may differ). Free.