Grahame Perry creates photo collages and manipulated photos, with a colorful pop art sensibility, that show his own experiences as a long-time survivor of HIV. His work is both political and personal and conveys feelings ranging from frustration and mourning to hope. His series Materials of Survival explores his relationship to medication and the complex and evolving culture around HIV treatment. Ultimately his art raises questions about how new medical technology interacts with culture to color people’s lived experiences and senses of self.
Perry recently showed his work in SF Camerawork’s exhibit Long Term Survivor Project. He has a solo show at Magnet SF opening in November with a reception on the 6th of November. He feels that Magnet, a men’s health center in the Castro, is a perfect place to show his art.
OT: You style seems to have changed dramatically with the Am I Blue series. What inspired this change?
GP: Anything art-inspired has to be something that resonates with you, and certainly my experience as someone who is HIV positive has been a big part of my life. I think even from early on I wanted my photography to speak to that, but what that would be exactly took me a bit of time to work out. There seems to be two types of work that I am doing. The series Am I Blue are self-portraits. In Materials of Survival I am taking photographic images and arranging them – usually digitally. And I use different processes in the two series; one where I have an image I can use photographically and the other where I have an idea. For instance if I want to show the idea of taking medication for so long, I might take a picture of a handful of what I take in a day and then lay it out to show twenty-four years of medication. I feel freer to manipulate this type of work. It is probably closer to digital art as opposed to straight photography.
OT: Do you see your techniques, such as collage, as part of the concepts of the art or just your method?
GP: Yeah, I think my techniques are part of it. Collage is a way for me to visualize for myself, and to understand what it would mean for other people to look at this, whether if it’s this many pills or this many blood vials or this many obituaries, the idea of what its like to be HIV positive for twenty-five years, or what its like to wake up every morning and have to take these pills. How do you put that across in something that’s visual?
I also like the idea of using color so that those colors interact to become more than part of the background, they are part of the picture itself. Things have changed over the years since I first tested. It was a very scary time; there really wasn’t any treatment. The only thing that was visible were people who were scared or getting sick or dying. Now we have treatments being given to people who have access to them. People can live a fairly long time. So there has been a real change and I am using color to represent that, some of the bright colors may be indicative of a change of emotional reaction. I especially use that in Every Three Months.
OT: Has your work received any interesting or unexpected reactions?
GP: I am always interested to hear what people think. It’s always different; It could be someone like me who has been taking medication and has gone through this long involved history or someone who has recently tested positive or someone who is HIV negative but has lost friends or someone who is new to this and just wants to experience it as art. Recently, at the show at Camerawork, where I was with two other artists who are also trying to make art about long-term survivorship, I talked to people about how they responded to the work and what their thoughts about it were. With the Camerawork show there were a lot of people who came from the community who weren’t used to going to galleries. The gallery manager said he was very emotionally affected just observing the people, the survivors and other people in the community who came to see the show. It’s art, but it also talks about a very personal experience both for myself and the people who were viewing it. It’s interesting to see how much I talk about it as art and how much I talk about it as my own personal experience and how that was mirrored in the responses of people who came to see the show.
OT: Is it hard to show work that is so personal?
I was talking about this the other day. There is a degree of coming out, especially when I first started making the work. I started making some of the work at City College; the first piece I made is the one called “Obsession.” I did that for a design class. I was very nervous. I was talking about it in the third person although I am sure it was clear to a number of people that I was probably talking about my own experience. I was in this new population of people I hadn’t come out to in that respect. It was a little scary … I guess what’s surprising is the amount of support I have gotten both for the work and for bringing my own experience to it. All of my fears didn’t really count for anything; people have been supportive, they have shown care, they’ve shown love. I felt really empowered.
There was a time whenit seemed like HIV was all we were talking about. Then there was this period after the pills became available where everyone tried to get back to normal, whatever that was. After that it wasn’t talked about much. Here I am doing this work that brings it all back. I’ve been surprised by how much caring and support people have that is so much part of this area; it recreates what went on before in the present.
OT: Why do you think it’s important to have these conversations again?
GP: I think as a community a lot of people wanted to somewhat put this behind them because it was so overwhelming and emotionally debilitating. For myself and others getting back to normal … normal on some level has always been dealing with this illness. It doesn’t have to define us but it’s a part of our lives. HIV allowed people to do more than they could possibly imagine, to build these organizations when the government was basically turning their backs and when there was so much stigma people were losing jobs. It allowed people to do things that were extraordinary. To say we’re just not going to talk about it is a denigration of what was accomplished.
Also, even though a lot of things have been solved there are a lot of things that are still unknown. There have been a lot of groups that have formed that are focused on long-term survival. A lot of the HIV service groups are starting to recognize that there are needs as you get an aging population that is more fragile because they are HIV positive. There is a sense there are needs that have not been very visible that need to be addressed. There is also the sense that in this area in the gay community the men who would have built the institutions for the older LGBT community died. There is a whole generation that is missing.
I think there is also for me personally a sense of looking back and saying, “What was my life, what was that all about?” and trying to make sense of it, trying to build something that represents that.
OT: You mentioned the piece Obsession. It seems like obsession is an unusual way to describe medication. Can you explain why you chose that title?
GP: I think obsession is important because of my own personal story. After I became aware I was positive, one of the things I did was read all I could about HIV and potential treatments, therapies, and alternative therapies. Back then – this was ’88 or ’89, before the internet, but there were bulletin boards and a lot of newsletters. There were groups that were bringing in different things, whether it be vitamins or drugs from other countries or ozone therapy. There was a gamut of things and people were desperate. I took some of the treatments with different levels of proof. And the experience of reading and experimenting on myself and becoming an expert beyond what the doctors could offer me, that sort of obsession is what I was talking about in Obsession.
In the image I have the drugs, which were the various regiments I had taken up until 2009. There is an allusion to this one experimental combination, which I was on for about a dozen years, which I think saved my life. This was something that was taken illicitly. Eventually my doctor gave it to a bunch of us, but he was doing it without anybody knowing. He could probably have gotten his license stripped away. Obsession is about the experimental nature, the obsessive nature, of really having to battle for my own health at a time when there wasn’t a lot of information.
OT: What new projects are you working on now?
GP: I’ve gotten a lot of positive reaction to the every AIDS Obituary; I’m trying to get permission to use individual panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt and make a collage using that. I have several other pieces I’ve been thinking about as well. I’m going to continue to build on this series – it doesn’t quite feel completed yet, but there are also other things I want to do. I would like to do some portraiture of people who are HIV positive. I think a lot of the work that looks back on the past can be mournful. I want to ask, “We have gone through all of this; what makes your life worth living now?” Whether that is someone’s love or the love of art or whatever an individual might do. I want to make portraiture that is looking to the future, more of a celebration. That’s something I realize, I’ve been given all this time that a lot of people weren’t; I still feel like there is a reason to be positive and optimistic and to speak out, because I’m still here.
OT: I was interested in the piece Wider Horizons; it seems to address different issues from your other work. Could you talk about that?
GP: I’m glad you mention that piece. There are some pieces I’ve been making that feel like a whole new section of work. For me it addresses some questions I have about today. It’s a question that is focused on younger gay men. We now have this knowledge and tools we never had. In the past we always used condoms, but now there is PrEP [medication that reduces risk of getting HIV] and the knowledge that if you are positive and if you’re taking medication and have an undetectable viral load, you are noninfectious. You have the old tools, condoms, and some people choose not to use condoms but choose to sleep with people of the same status [referred to serosorting]. So you have all these tools and all these different opinions about them; I’m wondering how people are communicating about all this. I feel like people may be yelling. In this piece I am graphically representing different parts of this dialogue
OT: Are you just representing this dialogue or commenting on it?
GP: A little of both. I certainly have my own opinions. And certainly when people say “mister clean” and the idea of serosorting … what does that mean for HIV-positive people? Well, you’re clean and I never can be clean; how does that make me feel? Is that stigma? Is that choice Buts it’s certainly going on.
I think for me, pieces like Wider Horizons are mostly a way to communicate, especially with younger men whose reactions are a lot different than mine. I really can’t envision the ways they are taking in all these ideas. I’m curious about the reality of a, say, a twenty-two-year old that is HIV positive, to have less people talking about it but to have more options. I wonder if with less conversation about HIV there may be more stigma.
I think there is this whole thing that is happening that I’m very intrigued by. I think if this pill Truvada [PrEP] had been available in 1988 everyone would have taken it, but now it’s different, some people are saying, “If you take this pill is it just because you want to have unsafe sex?”. I’m pretty sure that’s not the reality, but there is a visible voice that is saying that. I know people who are on Truvada and I know that’s not the only reason, but even if that is the only reason for certain people, don’t they have the right to become 95 percent protected from whatever choices or mistakes they might make?
I had a chance to talk to a couple people at Camerawork who were artists who are HIV positive and are trying to make art that talks to their experience. I think that it’s fascinating that we have this generational communication, sometimes interpersonally and sometimes on the walls of galleries.
OT: What sort of feedback have you gotten from the younger population?
GP: I had some discussions in the gallery with a group of younger people who were HIV positive. There was definitely a reaction; it’s cool to see someone who has lived with this illness for thirty years if you have just known about it for two years and you doubt your own longevity. I think even today with all this knowledge it can still shake your belief in your future. So I think that is important, but that’s only the beginning. I think there has to be more of a conversation on both sides.
There are a lot of conversations that still need to happen. Camerawork had a round table with Anja Matthes, who has a set of photos of Kiki Ballroom, a series of balls in New York for LGBT people, primarily people of color. In some of those communities there are still huge amounts of HIV-positive incidents. In certain communities 50 percent of black gay men might be positive, which is as bad as it was in 1984 in the Castro. These are communities that might feel more isolated and not have the resources or the support that might have existed in San Francisco.
To see more of Grahame Perry’s work visit the Tikkun Art Gallery or the artist’s website