Artist David Wojnarowicz died of AIDS in 1992, but his spirit was alive and well at Chelsea’s P.P.O.W. Gallery last Thursday, when Joe Jagos and friends kicked off an exhibition of Wojnarowicz’s work with live performances of the influential artist’s poetry and music. Sporting a white v-neck, skinny black jeans, Jesus hair and geometric necklace, the spindly Jagos cut an appropriately bohemian figure for someone attempting to carry the radical torch—or rather, as Wojnarowicz tried to convey with his work, the sane, humanist torch—into the next generation. As those infamous ants crawled over crosses on the wall behind him, the normally low-key Jagos (full disclosure: a friend) minced no words when introducing the oft-censored works of Wojnarowicz, connecting the homophobia-driven hushing of HIV information to his own childhood in the 1980s and ’90s: "I grew up Catholic in Flint, Michigan, and by the time we found out about AIDS in 1992, my sisters were old enough to be sexually active."
Attractive, black-clad art folks of all ages and orientations paid earnest attention as Jagos read a graphic story about a young gay man beaten to within an inch of his life while onlookers did nothing. This was intensified by Daren Ho’s haunting sound effects. Lightening the mood a bit, Jagos next invited some additional musicians to perform a few songs by Wojnarowicz’s ’80s era No Wave band, 3 Teens Kill 4. Despite continuing the severe themes of censorship and homophobia, the songs also showcased Wojnarowicz’s playful side with lyrics like, "I bet you wish you could shake a can of beans as loud as me." A few onlookers who looked like well-preserved survivors of the Downtown art punk scene nodded along approvingly; I later found out they were members of the original band.
"I re-wrote everything to get the feeling of him writing everything himself," Jagos explained of his preparatory process. Why was he, a straight guy in 2011, driven to read works created by a gay artist in the ’80s? "I did video here a year and a half ago, and [Wojnarowicz's] assistant insisted that I sounded just like him. I went home and watched some videos, and he was right. I’ve met some of his old lovers and friends, and they’ve all been really freaked out by how much I sound like him." (A little online fact-checking confirms twin baritones, albeit slightly different accents.) And how did he feel about art dealing with AIDS? "Not a lot of art out there deals with these issues as much as it should. In our generation, AIDS has been pushed back, but I know three people who have it. I’ve had a big fear of it since I was a kid because I had no information… it took a straight NBA player to become a spokesman for it. David could’ve been a spokesman for it [sooner]."