Brian Weil, 1979-95: Being in the World is the first career retrospective for an exceptional photographer whose life’s work shed light on insular and otherwise invisible communities during the 1980s and 1990s. The exhibition features sixty photographs, prints, and videos from five distinct bodies of work: Sex (1979-1981), Miami Crime (1982-1984), Hasidim (1985-1987), AIDS (1985-1991), and Transgender (1992-1995). The exhibition is curated by Stamatina Gregory for the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. The Santa Monica Museum is the only west coast venue for the exhibition. . Brian Weil (1954–1996) conceived of photography as an excuse to become deeply involved in the lives of others. “Often I use the excuse,” he said in a 1991 interview, “and forget to make the pictures.” This oft-stated justification explains his unparalleled access to subcultures and marginalized communities, along with his production of a relatively small body of work for projects that spanned months and years at a time. Photographs, for Weil, were secondary but essential to his interest and immersion in the worlds of his subjects.
For Sex, one of the earliest New York-based series, Weil found subjects by placing classified ads in The Village Voice and various fetish and underground magazines. The resulting images capture moments of sexual exchange, bondage, and bestiality. A single self-portrait is included in the series, along with prints made of letters from prospective participants. To shoot Miami Crime, the artist trailed Miami Police Department detectives on homicide investigations, photographing a gamut of over sixty violent crime scenes over a two-year period. Hasidim was the result of approximately two years spent with insular Hasidic Jewish communities in Brooklyn and the Catskills. While attending weddings and other intimate celebrations, he shot a series of portraits.
Hasidim came to a close in the mid-1980s, when Weil became deeply involved in the emerging AIDS crisis. He joined ACT UP and co-founded New York City’s first needle exchange program. Coming to view activism and artistic practice as inseparable, he photographed friends struggling with HIV and AIDS. His final body of work was a five-part video installation depicting the clinical and emotional processes of a Special Ops military veteran’s gender transformation. Weil left the series unfinished at the time of his death in 1996.
Weil made conscious formal decisions to convey the texture of each community’s experience while also respecting their dignity and insularity. His process involved re-photographing images from Super 8 film strips, then scratching and overexposing the negatives. The resulting images are both revealing and obscured, an aesthetics of withholding that enabled Weil to carve out an ethical position within the confines of still photography. Compared to the work of other participant-observer photographers of his time, Weil’s oeuvre is unique in its physical manipulation of the medium and distinct terms of exchange between photographer and subject. Brian Weil, 1979-95: Being in the World brings forward the work of this powerful artist whose practice resonates in contemporary debates about the politics of sexuality, activist aesthetics, and photographic representation.
Brian Weil, 1979-95: Being in the World is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by Semiotext(e). The catalogue features a scholarly essay from the curator; a historic interview between Weil and Claudia Gould, currently director of the Jewish Museum in New York; and oral histories that contextualize Weil’s work and life within a framework of dominant debates from the era.
Generous support of Brian Weil, 1979-95: Being in the World is provided by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Additional support is provided by Jeffrey R. and Linda Chodorow, Arthur M. Cohen & Daryl Otte, Meredith L. & Bryan S. Verona, Daniel W. Dietrich, II and the Overseers Board for the Institute of Contemporary Art and the University of Pennsylvania.
The presentation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art has been made possible by The Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation, the City of Santa Monica and the Santa Monica Arts Commission, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. Additional support has been provided by SMMoA’s Ambassadors Circle.
Brian Weil (1954–1996) was born in Chicago, where he briefly attended Columbia College and first began taking photographs as a teenager. During his career, he had twenty-one solo exhibitions at such institutions as Artists Space (1980), Moderna Museet (1989), the Saint Louis Art Museum (1991), and the Wexner Center for the Arts (1992). In 1991, the International Center of Photography organized an exhibition of his AIDS photographs, which was also the subject of a book, Every 17 Seconds (Aperture, 1992). Weil’s work is held in the permanent collections of the Jewish Museum, New York; the International Center of Photography, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.
Stamatina Gregory is an independent curator and scholar currently based in New York; her work engages with the interrelationship of photography and politics. Her affiliation with the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania began when she was a Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow from 2007 to 2009. While at ICA, she curated the exhibitions Carlos Motta: The Good Life, Tavares Strachan: Orthostatic Tolerance, and Kate Gilmore. As an independent curator, Gregory has organized group exhibitions at FLAG Art Foundation, Winkleman Gallery, PPOW Gallery, the New York Center for Art and Media Studies, Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, and the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York. She was Deputy Curator of the inaugural pavilion of the Bahamas at the 55th Venice Biennale. Gregory is a doctoral candidate at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.