installation shot, Brian Weil, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

Brian Weil, Susan (1993), installation shot, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania











Brian Weil (1954–1996) is an artist whose photographs channel the viewer into a deeply unsteadying engagement with liminal communities and subcultures. As a member of ACT UP and the founder of New York City’s first needle exchange, Weil’s photographs became inextricably tied to his activist practice. His late work, an extensive series of simultaneously raw and self-reflexive portraits whose subjects struggle through the emerging AIDS pandemic, is presented along with selections from several earlier and concurrent projects: Hasidim (insular populations of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn and the Catskills), Miami Crime (homicide scenes investigated by the Miami Police Department), Sex (underground sex and bondage participants), and an extensive video project with members of nascent transgender support groups. Weil immersed himself in the lives of those he felt compelled to represent; later, with the advent of the AIDS pictures, he depicted those with whom he had become intertwined through his activist practice. Heavily reworked and remediated, his photographs foreground the complex relationships between photographer and subject, and between photograph and viewer.

Weil was a younger contemporary of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, participant-observer photographers who shot intimate portraits of friends and loved ones living on society’s margins. Like theirs, his work complicated prevailing notions of documentary photography. Vehemently resistant to photographic truth claims, Weil dismissed traditional photojournalism as easily consumable and ultimately apolitical. In contrast, he produced work utterly distinct in its physical mediation and unique relationship to the politics of representation. Part of his process involved intervening with his negatives—scratching, overexposing, and re-photographing them—techniques meant to lead the viewer into a reflexive investigation of the processes and effects of marginality. This exhibition at ICA is the first major monographic retrospective of Weil’s work in fourteen years. Born in Chicago, Weil moved to New York where he had his first solo exhibition at Artists Space in 1980. Although he initially showed with members of the Pictures Generation such as Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince, Weil quickly disassociated his practice from photographic postmodernism.

During his career, he had twenty-one solo exhibitions at institutions, including Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1989), the Saint Louis Art Museum (1991), and the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus (1992). In 1991, the International Center of Photography organized a traveling exhibition of his AIDS photographs, which was also the subject of the book Every 17 Seconds (Aperture, 1992).

Weil’s work is exhibited according to the artist’s practice, with large-scale photographs hung unframed to foreground their mediated materiality. The presentation also emphasizes the work’s resonance with contemporary debates on the politics of sexuality, activist aesthetics, and photographic representation.

—Stamatina Gregory, Guest Curator

Brian Weil, Untitled (Sex), 1979-1982


Brian Weil | 2013 | about