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by Kate Hallstead

A Body of Work: Corporeal Materials, Presence, and Memory in Jerome Caja’s Exhibition, Remains of the Day

Jerome Caja, legendary San Francisco drag performer and artist, dealt with the loss of his good friend, Charles Sexton, the way only a drag queen could—with guts, glitter, and a damn good show. After Charles’ death from complications of AIDS in 1991, Jerome Caja created a body of works out of Charles’ ashes, which was shown in an exhibition, Remains of the Day (curated by Amy Scholder and Rex Ray) the following year at San Francisco gallery, Southern Exposure. Caja’s use of corporeal mediums was not simply an extension of his affinity for unconventional materials such as make-up and nail polish, but rather the result of a pact made with his late friend. Both artists being HIV positive, they said that whoever survived the other would have to make art from the other’s remains. The show brought together the work of the two artists—something they never did in life. Caja’s expansive body of work of and about Charles combines aestheticism and transformation. The small portraits demand close examination, pulling the viewer in to see not only Caja’s rendering of Charles’ visage, but also Charles himself, peppered into the ash and glitter-infused resin. This intimacy provides for a confrontation of his death, their own lives, and through his liminal presence, a sort of sacred conversation. The works were enclosed in glass cases, adorned with elaborate frames, and seated on black velvet recalling displays of saintly Christian relics.

Jerome Caja, Untitled (Portrait of Charles Sexton), 1992. Nail polish and Charles Sexton’s ashes on bottle cap, approximately 2 inches diameter. Collection Amy Scholder. Photo credit: Christopher Burke Studios

Jerome Caja, Untitled (Portrait of Charles Sexton), 1992. Nail polish and Charles Sexton’s ashes on bottle cap, approximately 2 inches diameter. Collection Amy Scholder. Photo credit: Christopher Burke Studios

Author and good friend of Caja, Adam Klein, remarked, “The Remains of the Day are reliquiae, though no longer protected or enshrined, but exposed to light and air, used, forced to work.”[1] Unlike Christian reliquaries, the decay of Charles’ body was not on display. The use of ash, rather than fingers, for example, in the reliquization of Charles provides a crucial distinction. Ash clearly demarcates death, but shows no sign of decay. This corporeal material navigates a space between life and death, creating presence from absence with a resistance to memory. The body of the dead is present, and cannot only exist in abstracted memory. When it comes to representing the dead, French intellectual Georges Bataille notes:

When someone dies, we, the survivors, expecting the life of a man now motionless beside us to go on, find that our expectation has suddenly come to nothing at all. A dead body cannot be called nothing at all, but that object, that corpse, is stamped...with the sign
nothing at all.For survivors, the corpse and its threat of imminent decay is no answer to any expectation like the one we nourished while that now prostrate man was still alive; it is the answer to that fear. This object, then is less than nothing and worse than nothing.[2]

Death is not complete absence, for a corpse remains, materializing the permanence of loss. The Aristotelian origin story of art is one born out of loss and a longing to recreate presence. Work with corporeal materials—blood, ashes, urine, etc.—is not simply obscene or bold, but exemplary of the liminal body politics of the AIDS crisis for the dead, the living, and every state in between. Conceptually materializing remnants of a subject, literal or figural, brings a sense of spectral presence in its materiality, but with its presence, the fundamental immateriality of absence emerges with the recognition that the presence stands in for something lost. Corporeal materials, then, reverberate this vacillating conception of presence in their clear distinction between life and presence and death and absence. Acting almost as memento mori, these works force the viewer to confront not only the death of the person in the materials, but also their own. Especially in the context of the AIDS crisis prior to reliable treatment, viewing others’ decline and death created a prophetic perspective of the human form in all states. They stand as a testament to visibility and presence in a society steeped in homophobia, mass death, and public funerals—openly countering the often hidden AIDS narrative in obituaries. They also stand as a consumable abstraction of death. Two works, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) and Barton Lidice Beneš’ Brenda, embody this well.

Gonzalez-Torres’ loss is manifested in his 1991 piece, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), in which 175 pounds of cellophane-wrapped candies, symbolizing the healthy weight of his newly deceased partner, Ross. Gonzales-Torres engages in an elegiac dialogue with Ross and longs for his returned presence. Removed directly from the cultural and viral plague that led to Ross’ death, the space of contemplation created is more easily digestible than a work with corporeal mediums. Forced to confront ashes—and mingled within, the root of the death, the virus—wherein death is implied directly, the viewer cannot engage in any poetic abstraction from AIDS. A recent retrospective of Gonzalez-Torres’ work sparked outrage over the erasure of the AIDS narrative so fundamental to his work in its curation.[3] This ability to separate AIDS from his work is indicative of this indirect poetic narrative used in many works of the AIDS crisis. With the use of corporeal mediums, no such erasure can occur. Caja’s explicit use of ash allows for no abstraction or reimagination of the virus as a foreign agent.

Beneš’ piece, Brenda,  c. 1991-2, incorporates the ashes of his late friend, Brenda, who died from complications of AIDS, into a multitude of ribbons, playing off the red awareness ribbon project. The uniform rows of stiff grey ribbons are reminiscent of tombstones in a cemetery. This funerary theme was solidified with the use of a central bronze plaque, acting not only as a gallery tombstone describing the work, but also as a resting place marker for Brenda, whose ashes—given her tough life and mostly invisible struggles—never had much attentive care prior to Beneš’ work.[4] Curator and Beneš aficionado, Kris Nuzzi, interestingly notes, “Brenda also must travel with a copy of Brenda’s death certificate, as it is illegal to transport human remains without documentation.”[5] The ash-laden ribbons critique the ribbon project for being a hollow political statement. Beneš, who had a distaste for the ribbon project, commented, “If you want to do something about AIDS, contribute to research or make dinner for a sick friend. Don’t wear one of those awful red ribbons.”[6] By adding Brenda’s ashes, the ribbons take on a potency the simple red textile never had. Applying a product of death, paradoxically, endowed each one with an actionative energy. The fashionable red ribbon project brought awareness to AIDS, but Brenda plastered on the reality of the fatality of the virus and gave the epidemic scope. Brenda made her and many others’ invisibilities visible despite the Academy Awards and Tonys being littered with red ribbons. If the reality of the epidemic was present in the ribbon itself, like with Brenda, would so many stars be wearing them on the red carpet? The ease of pining a simple symbolic red ribbon onto a lapel is disrupted by the direct contact with Brenda’s ashes. The activist critique to Beneš’s grieving gave depth to the hollow, consumable symbol. Here, with the use of ash, there is no angle for the abstraction of not only the fatality of the virus, but also generally tepid attitude of AIDS awareness by those not directly affected.

Considering the work of Gonzalez-Torres, Beneš, and Caja, the museum, then, becomes a space wherein absence can be given form; where morbidity, mortality, and memory can coexist. The ritualistic practices of mourning, with stages of grief and customary practices, produce an altered state of reality. Quiet galleries with white walls transport the audience to a liminal space where—removed from the everyday, but also not quite a heavenly, atmospheric transcendence—they can contemplate the past, present, and future. We see this with Caja’s  portraits of Charles, who in the work is conjured at every stage of his being, including in his late-stage disability. Charles, losing his eyesight due to the common AIDS-related opportunistic infection, cytomegalovirus (CMV), chose to die by assisted suicide. With vivid colors so integral to his life as an artist, he could not bear the slow, muted, and colorless march toward death. Caja’s portraits preserved him in color: a vibrant, glittering phoenix rising from the grey ash. His absence was cultivated into a new presence. Charles, in his complex relationship with Catholicism, wished for his remains to be transformed into quasi-reliquary artworks by Caja to find a more positive, almost spiritual relationship with his body; transfiguring the ugliness of disease and death into an immortal reinterpretation of Charles and also a coping mechanism for Caja’s own imminent confrontation with mortality.

The AIDS crisis and its advocacy, during the plague years as well as today, is centered around the body—its decline, death, and its resilience. Corporeal mediums become a fundamental tool for creating presence from absence, and visibility from invisibility—not only central to AIDS, but also to larger queer culture and others marked by this kind of loss. With remnants of Charles in every piece, his presence is multiplicitous. His portraits litter the walls, and after the exhibition, many were gifted to friends and family around the globe as personal relics. The others make their way around galleries, allowing the San Francisco queen to work for eternity.

Kate Hallstead is an art historian and artist. She obtained her B.A. from University of Washington in art history and political science in 2018. Since 2017, she has been a curatorial intern at Seattles Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA). She serves as a freelance arts writer in Seattle, often commenting on the detritus and spectral remnants left in the wake of hyper-urbanization. Her background in dance has influenced her studies in art, focusing on the body and concepts of presence. She currently serves on the Content and Experience Committee for the Seattle AIDS Memorial Pathway public art project. In the fall of 2019, she will attend City College of New York for her Masters in art history with a concentration in museum and curatorial studies.


[1] Adam Klein, from his essay, “The New Eyes,” in Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS, ed. Thomas Avena (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994).

[2] Georges Bataille, Eroticism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986).

[3] Darren Jones, "Galleries Representing Felix Gonzalez-Torres Are Editing HIV/AIDS From His Legacy: It Needs to Stop," POZ, June 9, 2017, accessed February 20, 2018, https://www.poz.com/article/galleries-representing-felix-gonzalez-torres-editing-hiv-aids-from-his-legacy.

[4] Laurel Reuter, "In the permanent collection, gift from Barton Benes," North Dakota Museum Of Art | Barton Benes, accessed February 11, 2018, http://www.ndmoa.com/barton-benes.

[5] E-mail to Kris Nuzzi, March 15, 2018.

[6] Reuter, "In the permanent collection, gift from Barton Benes."


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Issue 42



by Theodore (ted) Kerr

by Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad and Louie Ortiz-Fonseca

by Sheldon Raymore

by Michael McFadden

by Rahne Alexander

by Adam Barbu and John Paul Ricco

by David Kahn and Brooklyn Historical Society

by Dudu Quintanilha

Artist Kelvin Atmadibrata in Conversation with Oral Historian Benji de la Piedra

by Emily Bass and Yvette Raphael

by the People with AIDS advisory committee

A Conversation Between Szymon Adamczak, Luiza Kempińska, and Hubert Zięba

by Demian DinéYazhi' and R.I.S.E.

An Exchange to Expand on the PrEP Manifesto between Carlos Motta and John Arthur Peetz

A Conversation Between Mavi Veloso and Nicholas D’Avella

A Conversation Between Jean Carlomusto, Alexandra Juhasz, and Hugh Ryan

by Nelson Santos

by Tacoma Action Collective

by Vladimir Čajkovac

Cecilia Chung, Olivia Ford, Deon Haywood, Naina Khanna, Suraj Madoori, Charles Stephens