June - 30, 2013

Visual AIDS and The Body

It Feels Like Love But It's The Drugs
Curated by José Luis Cortés

Sam Orwen, Lovers, 1982
Top Cat, 1990,
Acrylic on canvas, 21 x 30,
Courtesy of the Estate of Martin Wong and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York.

NOTE: Previous exhibitions are also available on the website.

At fifteen, I realized what I liked sexually. I met this very good looking Canadian who picked me up and took me to his hotel room. We began to have sex, he slapped me on the face, took me from behind while pulling my hair. When it was all over I—knees shaking—felt exhilarated, fulfilled, happy. From then on I developed a fixation with rough sex, being dominated and one night stands. I hardly ever dated and have been promiscuous ever since. I went on living my life this way. Pain, pleasure, sex, beauty, drugs and love have always being intertwined within my essence.

Experts have tried to find a cause or explanation for sadism and masochism and why some people find these practices pleasurable. Some mention childhood experiences, endorphin-based mechanisms, learned behavior, genetic disposition or simple conscious choice. It makes no difference to me. It is what it is.

While living in Berlin, I met this skinhead who looked like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. We did some ecstasy and went to his apartment where we began kissing passionately. As I was falling for him, he whispered to my ear "it feels like love, but it's the drugs". Ouch! I couldn't believe what I heard, but it was true.

Hedonism, drugs, sex for money, love, outlaws, prisons, BDSM, machismo, humiliation, skanks, unsafe sex and young men—my experiences, my likes and my wants compelled me to put together this web gallery. I couldn't resist the opportunity to express them through the artwork of some of my peers.

Self Portrait (Vile), (1979) by Jimmy de Sana was the first piece of art I selected. I find it dark—scary even—but beautiful. It turns me on. It was the cover of Vile Magazine. It is strong and shocking. De Sana's work has been described as anti-art. William Borough describes it as "strangely explicit to purely symbolic".

Martin Wong’s connection with Puerto Ricans in New York sparked my interest in him. I met him in the mid 90s at David Hirsh’s apartment. I was intrigued by Wong’s love relationship with Miguel (Mickey) Piñero, the Puerto Rican poet "turned" into a heroin addict at Rikers Island jail at 19, who—nevertheless—was a seven time Tony Awards nominee and founder of the ground breaking, Nuyorican Poet's Cafe. Wong and Piñero, two masters in their own right, produced one of the most interesting forms of creating art. The Poet put his jail experiences in verse and gave them to the Painter as presents. Wong would them capture Piñero ‘s words in paintings, offering them to the world in what I can only refer to as a, "labor of love".

A beautiful example of this is, The Annunciation According to Mikey Piñero (Cup Cake and Paco), (1984) in which Wong depicts a jail memory by Piñero. He includes Spanish text of a conversation between two prisoners:

“I said to leave me alone I am no faggot!"

The one on his knees says, “So what? Listen to me negrito. Let me tell you something; You are driving me crazy. I am a desperate man. I am enchulao with you. I want to be yours and I want you to be mine. What you want me to do for you?”

Wong’s connection to Piñero and his stories, is also evident in C76 Junior (1988) where he turns a jail cell into something sublime. The prisoner seems to be sleeping in a bed of clouds. This provokes in me thoughts of bondage, sex, crime and innocence.

John Lesnick’s, Chair II (1989) reminds me of something I read once: “some men need to be tied up to feel free."

I have selected a work by David Wojnarowicz, gay subculture icon, as both the first and last image in this web gallery. Toxic Junky (1983) fascinates me with how it mixes crude realism with comics. Untitled (Map), (1990) takes me thru the darker side of gay life towards a calmer, tender world. Perhaps a place we are all looking for.

When I look at the work, I can't but think, IT FEELS LIKE LOVE.

In the Curatorís Statement:

American Noir: Into a Dark Past

B i o g r a p h y

José Luis Cortés was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Puerto Rican parents. His family moved to Puerto Rico when he was three years old, and he lived there until the age of 28, when he moved to New York City. A gay man, José Luis’s artistic career took off more when he began producing work inspired by the 1990’s New York City gay scene. José Luis’s work has been exhibited in galleries and museums in Amsterdam, London, Berlin, New York, Miami, Vienna, among other locations. His work has been reviewed in the New York Times, Art in America, and Out Magazine and many other publications. You can see more of his work at the Visual AIDS Online Registry. and learn more about him at

José Luis is also an AIDS activist. He was a founding member of The Archive Project, and was included in the landmark exhibition, The First Ten (1995), which showcased the work of artists living with HIV. Currently he works with urban youth in Puerto Rico, teaching them about art, and how it can become a part of their daily lives. In 2013 José Luis participated in VIAL, a project of the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR)


While living in NYC in the late 1990s, the gay porn industry became José Luis’s obsession. He spent several years documenting this industry from the inside out. He performed as a stripper at Eros I, the first gay male porn theater in the United States. During his performance intermissions, José Luis would step out to photograph the then soon-to-be destroyed theaters by the Times Square’s “renewal” (or “Disneyfication”) plan set in motion by NYC’s mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

It was during this time that José Luis began painting on newspapers, mostly the New York Times, using only black and white gouache while letting other colors already in the newspapers bleed into the images he paints. Both his work and medium reflect the complexity of his life history as a gay man and artist. The short-lived nature and deceptive fragility of newspaper is the ideal medium to document the context in which José Luis life and art happen. When asked why he chooses newspaper instead of canvas, José Luis quickly replies, "Because newspapers document what happens in the world; and my work documents what happens in my life."

Paradoxically, as the Times Square’s all-male theaters were disappearing, José Luis spent years preserving their images in newspapers printed during those same days in which gay life in NYC was being transformed. The scenes painted in those newspapers depict the gay theater era intertwined with “the news that’s fit to print” of the 1990s. The images as well as the medium—newspapers printed in the 1990s—are now time capsules. Fifteen years later, those images and newspapers are still around to transport us back in time.

In 1999, New York Times’ art critic Roberta Smith referred to Jose Luis’s work as “muscularly expressionistic paintings on newspaper.” More recently, his work has been the subject of analysis in an attempt to understand the intersection where life and art converge. In this regard, Richard Rothstein, contributor for ‘Art and Perception,’ has described José Luis as an artist that “paints within the framework of an odd lifestyle pattern.” However, this is a rather narrow view of both his work and his life. The same way José Luis’s homoerotic work evokes raw emotions, other facets of his work— his parents’ wedding portrait, portraits of his niece and his deceased father, as well as urban scenes of the Puerto Rican neighborhoods where he grew up— evoke tender emotions and reveals yet another dimension of his life and art. Pablo Picasso once said, “It is not what the artist does that counts, but what he is.” José Luis’s paintings make us want to know more about him and the world around us.

There is another medium through which José Luis expresses his life and art: live performances in which his body becomes his canvas, once again, blurring the distinction between art and life. Some of these performances are evocations of his days as a Times Square stripper; others involve applying makeup that makes him indistinguishable from his self-portraits on newspaper. During other performances some of his self-portrait images are tattooed to his body. He has executed these performances in art galleries, gay clubs, museums, and even children’s classrooms.

In his current work, “Men Wanted,” Jose Luis presents a collection of paintings depicting the now defunct Times Square’s gay theaters, images inspired by gay sex ads, photographs he took while working as a stripper, and self-portraits.

Every month, Visual AIDS invites guest curators, drawn from both the arts and AIDS communities, to select several works from the Frank Moore Archive Project.

Founded in 1988 by arts professionals as a response to the effects of AIDS on the arts community and as a way of organizing artists, arts institutions, and arts audiences towards direct action, Visual AIDS has evolved into an arts organization with a two-pronged mission: 1) Through the Frank Moore Archive Project, the largest slide library of work by artists living with HIV and the estates of artists who have died of AIDS, Visual AIDS historicizes the contributions of visual artists with HIV while supporting their ability to continue making art and furthering their professional careers, 2) In collaboration with museums, galleries, artists, schools, and AIDS service organizations, Visual AIDS produces exhibitions, publications, and events utilizing visual art to spread the message “AIDS IS NOT OVER.”

The Body is now the most frequently visited HIV/AIDS-related site on the Web, according to the Medical Library Association and also the most frequently visited disease-specific site on the Web, according to Hot 100. The Body contains a rich collection of information on topics ranging from HIV prevention, state-of-the-art treatment issues, humor and art. An invaluable resource, The Body is used by clinicians, patients and the general public. Part of The Body's mission is to enable artistic expression to reach the Web, and to join art with other resources needed to help the public comprehend the enormity and devastation of the AIDS pandemic and to experience its human and spiritual dimensions.

Visual AIDS 
526 W. 26th St. # 510, New York, NY 10001
Phone: 212.627.9855  Fax: 212.627.9815

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“The abstract, especially in those rough sketches, is very important to me, perhaps because of my advertising background, where layout is so important. Sometimes those first few lines cut the paper into such satisfying shapes that I don’t want to go on, but I always do, adding nostrils and nipples and bootstraps until I have filled the paper up as usual.” — Tom of Finland