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Show's heart is in the right place even if its art isn't

"Significant Losses" at the University of Maryland at College Park is an admirable project with major flaws.

The idea behind it cannot be faulted: to mount a show of the works of artists who have died from AIDS -- demonstrating what society loses to this terrible plague.

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The show's organizers, including co-curators Terry Gips and Bradley Spence of the UM Art Gallery staff, and a distinguished advisory committee, sought to have both nationally known and regional artists represented. They wanted to show that AIDS is not something far away -- it's about our own communities.

They succeeded, getting works by such well-known artists as Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring and Scott Burton, and works by artists such as Baltimore's Andrew Brunelle and College Park graduate David Fincham.

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They also included a group of drawings from children living with AIDS, who are patients at the National Cancer Institute's Pediatric HIV clinic in Bethesda.

They scheduled an impressive series of activities in conjunction with the show, from school tours to family education days. And there is a well-produced, handsome catalog.

All admirable.

When you experience the exhibit, knowing that all of these people are dead or, in the case of some of the children, sick with AIDS (and that each stands for thousands more), that thought alone is deeply moving.

All of this, however, doesn't hide the fact that there are two problems with the show.

One is that the show doesn't hang together very well as an art exhibit, despite generally good artists. There's no thematic unity (some of the works refer to AIDS but that wasn't required), and the artists are so different that they occasionally present jarring, uncomfortable juxtapositions.

Mapplethorpe's exquisitely produced, sleek photographs just don't like staring at Carlos Alfonzo's raw, violent abstract paintings. Even Scott Burton's beautiful granite bench placed between them cannot bring them together.

Brunelle's elegant ceramics look out of place in the midst of Peter Hujar's confrontational photography.

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And Paul Thek's tiny etchings and Carlos Almaraz's big, bold paintings do not sit well near each other.

The second problem is that all the dead artists are men, and Ms. Gips thinks they were all gay. Whether they were or not, it will probably be assumed by most of the viewing audience that they were. That can only perpetuate the misconception that AIDS is a gay male disease, which works against the educational purpose of the show.

To be fair, Ms. Gips says there was an effort to include women, but it was unsuccessful.

"Significant Losses" isn't a failure. The purpose deserves applause. If it makes some people think seriously about AIDS who wouldn't have done so otherwise, it'll have served the purpose well.

ART REVIEW

What: "Significant Losses: Artists Who Have Died from AIDS"

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Where: The Art Gallery, Art-Sociology Building, Campus Drive, University of Maryland College Park.

When: Noon to 4 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays (until 9 p.m. Wednesdays), 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Dec. 23. Note: Gallery closed Nov. 24 and 25.

Call: (301) 405-2763.


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