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In the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, a drug like Truvada was an impossible dream. Scientists could hardly agree on the condition of HIV, much less anything approaching a treatment, while the Reagan administration dragged its heels on even acknowledging the crisis. Quack science has reached well into this millennium—AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg’s still got tenure at the University of California, Berkeley—even as protease inhibitors and similar medications, like Truvada, have wrestled the disease into manageable status.
So when Damon Arhos elevates a bottle of Truvada to pop-icon status, it’s a gesture that Gen-Xers might recognize. For “The Antidote (No. 1–7)” (2018), the artist creates seven images of a prescription-bottle label for the drug in the way of Andy Warhol silkscreen prints. Arhos’ paintings have the same timeless feel that Warhol reserved for celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Mao Zedong (and also the Campbell’s soup can and the electric chair). By taking the same tack as the Pop Art great, Arhos signals an affinity between Warhol’s subjects and his own—a daily pill that offers hope but not a cure.
Other artists have taken an interest in prescription drugs, from Fred Tomaselli (who uses them in his collaged installations) to Damien Hirst (who has adopted medicine cabinets as a sculpture mode). Arhos is looking for something else. He borrows Warhol’s lens to focus on the drug as a cultural signifier, the coin of a certain realm. This is about the milieu of Truvada, and Warhol’s dull golden palette is the right tool to convey the sense of longing and regret that icons so often inspire.
Never mind that Arhos’ works are serigraph-ink paintings, not silkscreen prints. Raising doubts about authenticity is a totally Warholian move. With this series, Arhos is investing a little something extra into the work by painting them by hand, but he needn’t have bothered. It is rewarding enough to suss out what Arhos means to say about an HIV treatment by casting it in the same light as Elizabeth Taylor or Mickey Mouse without adding another question about the artist’s own take on Warhol— although the paintings are attractive.
“The Antidote” is one of three works on view in I Love To Hate You, a small solo offering. “Yesterday’s 30” (2018), a Super 8 film projection of snapshots of 30 transgender Americans who died in 2017, is another nod to pre-millennial nostalgia and commemoration by pictures. “Trapped” (2018) is a departure: a twisting tower of rat traps painted a metallic red, more Ai Weiwei than Andy.
“The Antidote” could stand alone here. Recent museum exhibits—on David Wojnarowicz and ACT UP Gran Fury, among others—have looked back on the toll the Reagan era took on the LGBTQ community. Arhos’ piece considers that legacy in full, and in real time, by examining the act of taking a pill: mundane, even monotonous, and yet profound.
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