Theater & art

Avram Finkelstein fueled by notions of class, politics, family

Avram Finkelstein’s show, “Lifelines,” is up at the University of Massachusetts Boston Harbor Art Gallery. “The show is very much about my family’s class. Each of the canvases in it reflects on egalitarian art.”
Avram Finkelstein’s show, “Lifelines,” is up at the University of Massachusetts Boston Harbor Art Gallery. “The show is very much about my family’s class. Each of the canvases in it reflects on egalitarian art.”

Artist Avram Finkelstein has been inspired by sociopolitical issues throughout his career. Born in 1952, in the 1980s he became a founding member of the groups Silence=Death Project and Gran Fury, artists’ collectives responding to the AIDS crisis. A new exhibit of his work, “Lifelines: Recent Work by Avram Finkelstein,” is on display at the University of Massachusetts Boston Harbor Art Gallery, including photographs, wood sculptures, and an installation of a worker’s room based on Soviet textiles. The exhibition echoes his earlier themes such as the politics of AIDS, plus a focus on the subjects of family and the middle class. “Lifelines” will be up through March 14. The Globe spoke with Finkelstein recently by phone.

Q. The motif of a split lifeline is a recurring one in your artwork. Can you explain how it figures into this exhibition in particular?

A. With the lifeline, I’m really talking about class. The lines in the hand symbolize work. People who have lines in their hand have had to work for a living; those who don’t are probably more privileged. So the motif brings up issues like: Were you born with money? What kind of life have you lived, and have you had to struggle? The show is very much about my family’s class. Each of the canvases in it reflects on egalitarian art — that which can be done by anyone. The canvas is painted with house paint, and covered with cutouts of drawings I’ve done of photos and blown up.


Q. Based on the idea of reading a palm, is it fair to say that you’re a somewhat superstitious person? Does that have any influence on your work?

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A. The idea of palm reading is really out of character for me, since I’m a staunch atheist. I wouldn’t even describe myself as spiritual. But there is this Jewish mysticism aspect to the show. There’s a part of Judaism that is deeply magical. . . . Before the Machine Age, what you were born with is what you ended up with. But at the turn of the century, anyone who could afford a newspaper could take cutout images from them and paste them to furniture. It was sort of the beginning of anyone being able to participate in art. The show references so much from the 20th century, from Modernism to Utopianism. But it’s also an attempt to square displacement and identity in the 21st.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about how contemporary politics influence you?

A. I try to consider the political aspect of every image. I often think about how images function in a culture, especially in capitalist America. For example, after Clint Eastwood made that really weird empty chair reference [at last summer’s Republican National Convention], some people independently started hanging folding chairs from their trees in the South — there was one sighting of it in Texas, I think. It was such a potent, chilling, self-confessional moment that really just related to this one image.

Q. There has been controversy over some of what you’ve created, as well. Do you ever have the shock factor in mind when you sit down to create?


A. The work I’ve been involved with is definitely provocative. As a Jew and a gay man and a leftist, I’m somewhat on the outside, but I am true to myself. I can only be who I am, you know? I’m never really trying to be provocative; it just happens that way sometimes.

Q. How have you incorporated your family into the exhibition?

A. The collages are a good example. They feature photos taken when my father was stationed in Paris during World War II, and text I found on the back of them. One is a reflection of my father in the mirror of some kiosk on a Paris street. On the back of it he wrote, “You may perceive dimly in the mirror yours truly.” In that small photograph I see a whole story of displacement, alienation. Here’s a man holding a camera in a nonprofessional sense; really he could be anyone. The photo reflects on that egalitarian, anyone-can-do-it sort of art. It’s also a reflection on fathers and sons, and on identity.

Q. What about the AIDS crisis? How have you harked back to it this time around?

A. The genesis of my collage work was actually when my boyfriend first started showing signs of immunosuppression [in the 1980s]. No public conversations about AIDS were being had at that time. One day I started to look at my palm to find clues about mortality. My lifeline was long, but there was a fork in the middle of it. For this show, I ended up doing a series of drawings based on my hand and my father’s hands.


Q. Why did you choose wood sculpting? It seems distinctive.

A. Well, it’s sort of this forgotten thing. Here I’m referencing early-20th-century poster making, and WPA [Works Progress Administration] art and artists. The WPA sought to socialize public projects. Two of my sculptures are very large woodcuts; one of them is a sculpture of a hand in bas-relief.

Q. You could also say that wood sculptures seem less highbrow than ones made of, say, stone. Generally speaking, how do you feel about establishment art?

A. I think that, oftentimes, our assessment of art is class-based. People independently made art in caves way before Western notions of what’s considered quality art came along. I really appreciate folk art — you know, stuff created outside the mechanisms of capital and quality. But my taste runs the gamut. I’m also wildly influenced by contemporaries. I sort of love it all. There’s no genre of human expression I’m not interested in.

Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Cocchia can be reached at peter