Twenty years ago, there was a great deal of poetry being written to protest the Vietnam War. Some of it was good, but a lot of it wasn't. That doesn't mean, however, that the poetry that wasn't so good should never have been written. It certainly didn't hurt, and it probably helped.
Those thoughts are occasioned by two shows that opened on Saturday in celebration of "Day Without Art 1990": "Visual AIDS" (through Dec. 22), sponsored by the Museum for Contemporary Arts/Maryland Institute at the Famous Ballroom, 1717 N. Charles St., and, two doors away at 1713, the BAUhouse's "AIDS=AID" (through Jan. 11).
"Visual AIDS" contains more than 200 works sent in response to a national call for entry, including everything from a complex installation by Jann Rosen-Queralt and Bill McQuay to work by non-artists including students and health professionals. The huge, unheated space (dress warmly) in which this work is shown includes an area with chairs, tables and drawing materials; you can make your own drawing and add it to the exhibit -- remember that it's supposed to be in some way a response to AIDS.
"AIDS=AID" is a regional invitational exhibit, containing about 40 works by 33 artists, and these works also are in response to AIDS.
While "AIDS=AID" was organized more selectively than the sprawling and democratic "Visual AIDS," it's possible to say of both exhibits that, with exceptions, the level of sincerity is higher than the level of quality.
More than the sophistication of individual works, however, what's important in this case is what the shows in general are for. They are a way of remembering and mourning the lost, of helping those who have lost loved ones, of raising public consciousness, of giving to people with AIDS and AIDS-related groups. The works in "Visual AIDS" will be given to such individuals and groups after the show is over. The BAUhouse will have fund-raising events during the month and perhaps an art auction later.
That's not to say that there are no memorable works in these shows; there are, and some of the most memorable are among the most straightforward. In "AIDS=AID," Steve Hart's photo mini-essay tells the story of Ernesto and Maria, two drug addicts who, after they contracted AIDS, got their lives together. They look like altogether different people in the 1990 photographs than in the sad 1988 photos.
Of all the works in "Visual AIDS," the most haunting is Lisa Lewenz's untitled installation/photograph. Attached to a wall is a small shelf with an unlighted candle on it. The shelf and candle are just beneath a photograph of the same wall, shelf and candle -- only in the photograph the candle is lighted. When the light goes out, we are left with only the memory of the light.