The Right Fight: Jeff Colby

at the Illinois Art Gallery, through January 6

A year ago, the Illinois Art Gallery exhibited the work of Arch Connelly, a former Illinoisan who’d died of AIDS while still in his 30s only a few months before. I was amazed by the extraordinary delicacy of many of the pieces; constructions using fragments of eggshells achieved an airy spaciousness that transcended the materials. I found myself angry that Connelly was receiving attention only after his death–and angry with myself for not finding the time to review his show.

Now the Illinois Art Gallery is showing an equally fine artist who has AIDS–but thankfully Jeff Colby is still living. Colby makes most of his works out of found materials, presenting them with minimal or no modification, generally combining them with other found materials. The powerful animism of most of the 150 assemblages, collages, and drawings on view comes from the tension between the life reflected in the materials themselves, whether that of junkyards or old Ronald Reagan movies, and Colby’s aestheticizing and interpretive combinations.

The 1986 Rainmaker looks like a fetish object, common among African peoples, intended to have special powers. A black handle supports a stick that leads to a comb; hanging from the center of the stick is a doll leg complete with a hinged knee joint. On the stick below are shards of colored glass; pieces of glass are also affixed at the base of the comb’s teeth. Colby carefully painted the teeth near the tips with narrow bands of white and black. If the bands suggest primitive magic, the leg is humorously incongruous, its fleshy plastic providing a mass-culture contrast with the various kinds of wood, its hinged knee perhaps hinting at an absurd rain dance.

Some of the strongest works make use of heavily rusted metal; the rust’s irregular relief patterns present us with unpredictable nature while the shaped metal and Colby’s arrangement of the pieces provide a human ordering. Colby gives each piece just enough aesthetic form to make it cohere, to bring out the beauty of the parts, while preserving the raw power of the rust itself and the odd shapes of these discarded scraps. Que (1989) is two rusty tubes fused to form the letter Q. The shape is as familiar as a first-grade primer, but the work’s stength comes from its irregular surface and the way the smaller tube is crimped at the ends, a sign that some great force was once applied to it. There’s something potent, even wild, about the heavy rust and the crimping that the letter form can’t completely contain.

In Caution/Detour (1990) the junk surfaces overlap in a manner that stops the eye. A dark rusted circle and three metal rectangles of different textures (one is grating) are placed one above the other; the eye, rather than entering as it would with an illustionistic painting, is encouraged to comtemplate the particular qualities of each surface. In Escapement (1989) a rusty ridged plate dominates, but between two of the ridges Colby has placed what looks like a bright silver-colored hair roller whose smooth finish and neatly drilled holes contrast with the plate’s rust. Finished, clean, perfect objects, Colby seems to be saying, are no better than the junk we ignore and discard–there’s a beauty, even a similar beauty, in each.

The 1989 View draws much of its strength from the heterogeneity of its parts. At the bottom of a rusted metal sheet sits a large, rather rudimentary gray key with two rectangular teeth and one simple hole. Above the key are two loops of rusted wire attached by a bolt: together they resemble eyeglasses, though Colby says he found the wires already twisted into these shapes. Above the glasses, mounted over the larger rusted metal sheet, is a second metal surface, with a variegated design that’s a cross between elegant wallpaper and a decay even more pernicious than rust, suggesting a skin disease.

The key not only suggests the common modernist idea of the artwork as a mystery for the viewer to unlock, it’s also the most geometrical shape in the piece, suggesting that logic or science might provide a “solution.” But the glasses, which “ought” to provide the answer, could be looking either in at the metal or out at the viewer. Twisted and rusting, they suggest that their view is not independent but also subject to decay. In View, as in many of his best constructions, Colby achieves a precise yet paradoxical balance. Each object is seen both as a piece of junk and for its suggestive or symbolic potential–without ever becoming primarily a symbol, as the objects in the earlier fetishlike pieces sometimes do. Colby achieves this with a minimum of artistic intervention. With one foot in the junkyard and the other in the artist’s studio, these pieces invoke the real world of random damage and disintegration as much as artistic attempts to create something ordered and perfect. In View and Caution/Detour the parts don’t fuse into a single image, encouraging the eye to range over the variety of decaying surfaces.

Colby, 38, was born in New York City but grew up in Houston. His mother was an amateur artist, but he recalls that the biggest influence on his use of materials was his father: “Born in the Depression, he collects junk to this day. He’ll find a broom handle and adapt it to a shovel. I lived in a household where nothing was thrown away and there was a second chance for everything.” Now a Chicago native, Colby tested HIV positive in 1987, but he wasn’t aware that his subsequent ailments represented full-blown AIDS until about 1990, when his work underwent a profound shift. That year Colby made Fountain, whose title refers to Marcel Duchamp’s famous readymade of a urinal. Colby collected his urine and placed it in a glass vial; he recalls now that although he hadn’t fully and publicly acknowledged his AIDS at the time, including his own bodily fluid was a veiled reference to it.

In the Bandage Series of 1991, and in most of Colby’s subsequent work, his subtle, indirect, and allusive use of objects seems to collapse. As Colby says in a wall text, “There is no gray anymore. Everything is absolutely black and white to me.” And though the meaning of some objects may not be immediately decipherable, Colby has precise memories of why he included certain objects in his post-AIDS works. The five holy cards in Luck of the Draw (1992), for example, came from a service for the first close friend of his who died of AIDS.

Each piece in the Bandage Series collages several bandages, often at oblique angles. Most of the bandages are covered with brown red stripes, which most will correctly infer, is blood–in fact Colby’s blood. Colby has a permanent catheter to deliver medication and to remove blood for testing, which he sometimes does himself. The initial blood drawn, which may be contaminated by the tubing, is called “wasted blood,” and as in earlier pieces, Colby has used this waste material for his art.

If the leg in Rainmaker suggests a rain dance, and the rusted metal in many pieces natural decay, these blood stripes directly confront the viewer with the artist’s diseased body. Colby doesn’t create an illustory image, as is common in Western art, but presents us with a piece of himself–the blood that, though dried and sealed behind glass, is famously a carrier of the AIDS virus. This plus the fact that the collapse of T-cells in the blood often signals a patient’s death give these stripes much of their power.

Most of the blood in Bandage #10 is in horizontal streaks across two large bandages placed at an angle to each other. The uniform stripes give the work a simple order; their independence from the bandages’ angles gives his physical body primacy over imagery. Yet the stripes, here and in most of the post-AIDS works, are never completely straight or regular, and Colby says their sloppiness is intentional: “The lines represent my lifelines…. There’s this urgency–they’re not laid down in a nice little pattern, they’re laid down quickly because I don’t have the time to mess around.” Their irregularity and disorder, recalling the rust patterns and twisted metal, are also signs of life.

These horizontal dark red stripes also made me think of the U.S. flag, a connection confirmed by Colby’s 1991 Flag Series. In the simplest of these, Lifeline, there’s a square of horizontal blood stripes at the center of a white rectangle. At the center of a separate piece, the 1994 Badge of Honor, are two overlapping backwards flags surrounded by a blood-stained border, and on either side are images of Reagan and Bush (the Reagan image appears to be from Bedtime for Bonzo). In the center of the flags is a short newspaper text suggesting that if we’d had a “president who wasn’t afraid of the epidemic,” things might be different today. Reagan, who was recently praised for announcing his own Alzheimer’s in order to raise public awareness of the disease, was notorious for his cowardly failure to ever speak the word “AIDS” in the eight years of his presidency.

In a number of other series Colby creates forms that suggest life, growth, even transcendence, then covers them with his blood stripes; the contradiction gives them added power. In the 1992 Wooden Doll Series he replaces dolls’ heads with snapshots of his own head and shoulders, then covers the doll and the photo with stripes, thicker and cruder on the heads than on the dolls’ bodies. In the 1992 series Icarus Ascending, his crude stripes of blood, with their hint of death, find an odd parallel in the elegant colored feathers that represent the Icarus myth, suggesting of flight. The sticks in Hair Locket Sticks (1991) are covered with gauze and blood; from the ends of the sticks hair appears to sprout, as if the sticks, marked with death, were also alive.

Artist’s Bug (1994), part of Colby’s Bug Series, has on the right a photo of a large black bug surrounded by horizontal stripes of blood; on the left is an absurdly kitschy bucolic postcard of a guy and his gal in the country–the man is sketching the scene, but Colby has whited out the sketch and replaced it with more stripes. There are several levels of punning here. Being an artist is like having a disease. Having an artist at a picnic is like having a bug–which can ruin any picnic, an interpretation confirmed by the fact that the artist is painting stripes of AIDS blood. Colby the artist has a “bug” that has killed many talented artists in recent years.

By envisioning himself as the artist in the kitsch scene, Colby evidences the love-hate relationship many of his generation have with American mass culture, an ambivalence that’s particularly evident in the 1994 Life/Death Series. In each piece Colby juxtaposes two color postcards, on the left a brightly colored 50s-style image–of a mother and child, a little boy in a red cap, people at a motel swimming pool–on the right a postcard from a museum in Guanajuata, Mexico, of a mummified corpse. At first these juxtapositions seem perfect examples of how Colby now sees everything in black and white–here are vibrant life and the horror of death. Except that in the 50s images the people’s faces are the same bright plastic colors as the skies and backgrounds and clothing, and they seem airlessly imprisoned in their spotless, sterile, flat world–for once in Colby’s art, merely images of things rather than invocations. And the corpses, hideous as they are, are filled with detail: the skin is varied in color and texture, and there are palpable relief effects. Like the blood stripes, these corpses call up feelings of chaos, of bodies turned inside out, of death itself–but they do call up real feelings, unlike the plastic mother and child and the airbrushed Reagan.

It’s not that Colby is looking on the positive side of AIDS or of death. Rather he’s finding, as artists often do, an authenticity in himself lacking in others who superficially seem healthier. And clearly Colby is fighting the virus every inch of the way. In Eye History and The Right Fight, both from 1994, he uses simple circles to represent the eyeball, and in one of them diagrams the gradual loss of his sight in one eye to CMV retinitis, an infection common in AIDS patients. The stark circular diagrams on brightly colored cardboards are less “aesthetic” than most of Colby’s work, making them horribly appropriate to a visual artist’s description of the loss of an eye.

Even simpler is the Penmanship Series (1994). Outside the context of this show these pieces might look like absolutely nothing–I doubt if they’d get Colby admitted to even a second-rate art school. But coming near the end of this retrospective, they are deeply affecting. Each is a simple pencil “drawing,” on paper awkwardly lined by hand with a ruler, of a child’s printing. The Alphabet alternates lines of the ABCs and “I have HIV, AIDS, CMB, KS, and MAI. I’m glad I know my alphabet so well.” In Staying Alive, he writes, “I fight to stay alive everyday.” In Friendship he names some of the friends who have helped him stay alive.

There is nothing special about the penmanship, the design, even the texts. But having used his sense of form to give a primal, incantatory power to rust and his own dried blood–actual physical decay rather than images of it–he now, when a fatal disease has taken half his sight, abandons form almost entirely. The pieces of the actual world that he never completely aestheticized, intentionally preserving them in their wholeness, are present only in their names: the letters of the alphabet, the friends who help, the diseases that threaten to kill. Colby chooses to look death squarely in the face. If he acknowledges his diseased state by simply calling those things by their names, the very act of naming also asserts that he is still alive.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jane Stevens.