Mark I Chester photo of the day
Mark I Chester studio  1229 Folsom St./SF  415-621-6294 

December 1, 2011

photo of the day 12/1/2011. photo Mark I Chester
Robert Chesley - ks portraits with harddick and superman spandex # 1
from the series Diary of a Thought Criminal, 1989

Yes, I KNOW that it is Dec. 1st, World AIDS Day, a day without art. I am sorry but this has to change. The point has already been made. It is time for World AIDS Day, along with so many other traditions, to evolve. As I write this I am listening to former Ambassador James Hormel say in a TV interview that while it is important to honor World AIDS Day now, soon it will be time for all of us to move on so that this does not become an ongoing tradition. Talk about synchronicity.

So I make a pledge on every World AIDS day to share, show or promote images of artists who have died of AIDS or their artwork if I personally have access to it. We already know what it would be like to live in a world without their spirits, their artwork and their hearts because we have been forced to live in that world every single day since they died.

This is a portrait of my ex and friend gay playwright Robert Chesley taken in 1989 just about a year before his death. One of the mysteries of the AIDS epidemic has been the near disappearance of ks or kaposi's sarcoma and its lesions from those living with AIDS. It is stunning to me that when younger people see the images in this series, many of them have never heard of ks and have no idea what it looked like or how it terrorized the gay community. The angry red lesions marked you as diseased and as an outcast.

When we first met, Robert told me that the skin graft I have on my right arm from a 2nd/3rd degree burn made him feel queasy and uncomfortable. It was far more red in those days than it is now. He didn't ask me to cover it, but it clearly disturbed him. Life has a funny way of teaching us lessons. Most men with ks lesions did everything they could to hide them. But Robert intentionally walked around the Castro with his sleeves rolled up. He felt it was his duty to be upfront and out there with his disease. He hoped that his openness would help other men living with AIDS and ks lesions feel more comfortable and accepted.

This was one of the hardest photography shoots that I have ever had to do. Most of Robert's lesions were below his neck, so when he was fully clothed or wearing a jacket, you didn't know that he was suffering from ks. So when Robert took his shirt off, I was shocked. Angry red lesions covered his arms and chest. It literally took my breath away. Most AIDS photographs at this point were from one of two camps - beautiful portraits of people with AIDS going into that dark night, but doing so with glamorized looks, or devastating documentary photographs of gay men dying horrible disfiguring deaths in hospitals. Robert and I were insistent on taking photographs that would be about life and living, not about death and dying. And that included Robert being sexual and turned on. It may be nothing extraordinary now to show an hiv poz man with a hard dick. But that was not the case in the early 90s.

I was invited to show my series of photographs of Robert at the New College of California in a show called "Rated X - works that dare censorship." It was a direct action show and performance evening in response to the censorship going on at the NEA, mostly due to the evil efforts of Sen. Jesse Helms. I have often dealt with my work being censored and I quizzed the show organizers about this. They promised to stand behind the work. I hung the work at the previously agreed to time, but before the day was out, the work was taken off the walls by NCC due to complaints from lesbian students at NCC. This was unbelievable. These women complained because there were images of Robert with an erection sticking through an opening in his spandex outfit. They insisted that the photos had to be removed because an erection coming through clothing would upset and act as a trigger for women who had been raped because it would remind them of their rapes.

I couldn't believe it. And at that point everyone involved started backing away and pointing fingers. The NCC student who had approved the exhibition, now said she was blindsided by the organizers. The organizers allowed NCC to remove the exhibit, but went on to do their performance night despite the fact that they were protesting censorship at a college that had just practiced censorship on their event. Their promises to stand behind my work had apparently been written with invisible ink. About the only person who came off well in this was Tim Kingston from the SF Bay Times who did an incredible in-depth interview with me about the entire situation.

Every time I try to show this series it causes controversy. Art and AIDS, the magazine of art and AIDS <g>, won't show the work because of its adult nature. It was shown in Anchorage, Alaska as part of a show on censorship but the comments from viewers made it clear that, at least in Anchorage, people were flummoxed by the images of Robert with ks lesions. They just didn't get it. A big museum exhibition on AIDS in Australia talked about the series in the book that accompanied the show, but the curator was too afraid to show the works in the exhibition. Another big show on AIDS is planned for the Corcoran Museum in Washington DC  in the next couple of years, but my inclusion remains unknown. And so it goes on World AIDS Day 2011.