Andres Serrano, Blood and Semen III, 1990 Credit: Courtesy Andres Serrano

A shuttered branch of MB Financial Bank sits on the northeast corner of Fullerton and Halsted. It’s a bland, corporate, auburn brick building with rectangular aquamarine glass windows that’s unmistakably a dispiriting white-collar business. But maybe I’ve been looking at this edifice the wrong way—whereas I see bureaucracy and the uneasy motion of small-stakes capitalism, someone else saw a space to assemble a monumental art show.

“Art AIDS America Chicago”—a free exhibit taking up both floors of the former bank, now rechristened the Alphawood Gallery—is astonishing in its breadth and unlikeliness. There’s painting, sculpture, installation, photography, video, and sound art. There are multiple pieces by artists whose work is typically seen only in large museums. For example, there’s Felix Gonzalez-Torres‘s “Untitled” (Water), a curtain of azure beads that visitors can walk through, and to the left is a bank vault with Keith Haring‘s metal triptych Altar Piece inside of it. And that’s just two pieces—there are nearly 175 works in all.

Many galleries in Chicago have mounted shows about AIDS—Rogers Park’s Iceberg Projects perhaps chief among them with the semirecent exhibitions “Survival AIDS” and “Militant Eroticism”—but rarely with the broad scope, in terms both of physical size and variety of work, of “Art AIDS America Chicago.” Furthermore, Alphawood is squarely in the middle of Lincoln Park, and free to the public. What’s significant and commendable about this choice of location, in an upscale, predominantly white neighborhood, is that the exhibit frankly and explicitly addresses sexuality, race, gender, disease, class—and how each has been a source for discrimination by mainstream society. “Art AIDS America Chicago” isn’t just about AIDS; it’s also about how the virus exacerbated the ugliest variations of bigotry in American society.

The physiological horror of AIDS is displayed unflinchingly and honestly in multiple pieces. Robert Blanchon, a Chicago artist who died of it in 1999, took photographs of underwear stained by the uncontrollable incontinence that people with AIDS experience. Izhar Patkin’s Unveiling of a Modern Chastity, a mustard-colored canvas with slices of latex, printing ink, and rubber paste, resembles the sickly lesions and discolored skin that appear on those afflicted by the disease.

Though “Art AIDS America” was initially organized by the Tacoma Art Museum and first shown there, the Chicago edition boasts a number of works that weren’t part of the original exhibit. Among these are Gerard Gaskin’s photographs of the ball scene and its house system in New York City during the 1980s, which depict LGBTQ people of color happily embracing each other.

A particularly striking series of black-and-white photos by Patric McCoy feature habitues of the Rialto, a Loop bar that was a neutral zone for black MSM (men who have sex with men) in rival gangs. An adjacent wall text cites the Black AIDS Institute think tank: “A young Black gay man has a roughly 1 in 4 chance of being infected [with HIV] by age 25.” McCoy’s photographs look like romantic visions of a bygone era, but they’re imbued with deep longing.

The tension between beauty and mourning is an overriding component of “Art AIDS America Chicago.” What look like floating white planets with black polka dots hang above the staircase to the second floor, but they’re actually Eric Avery’s HIV Condom Filled Piñatas. Shimon Attie’s lovely, spectral photograph Untitled Memory (Projection of Axel H.) looks like a still from a Wong Kar-Wai film, with a spotlight trained on a man lying in bed watching a TV whose screen is colored purple—the person is the artist’s friend, who died of AIDS, and an old picture of him is superimposed on the artwork.

It’s wonderful that a defunct bank was remade into an art gallery. But for the building to host an exhibit as important as this one is a triumph.  v