Joey Terrill’s Playful Tributes to Gay Artists We’ve Lost

BEVERLY HILLS — When Joey Terrill tested positive for HIV in 1989, he assumed he had only a short time to live. In the 1980s, contracting AIDS was considered a death sentence and losing friends to the disease had become a frequent occurrence. So when he tested “undetectable” in 1997, he was quite startled. Already an accomplished artist and AIDS activist, he decided to dedicate a body of work to those who did not survive. In the resultant ongoing series, he mimics the style of Tom Wesselmann’s Pop Art still lifes, but replaces their consumer items and occasional female body parts with imagery and clever puns that reflect Terrill’s identity as an HIV+ gay Chicano. Several of these works are on view in his exhibition Still Here at Marc Selwyn Fine Art, along with a few that pay tribute to specific queer artists, and some new recreations of his lost pre-AIDS-era paintings that playfully satirize what it was like to be gay in the 1970s.

In most of the still lifes, Terrill’s serape-draped breakfast table fills the foreground. Other references to his Mexican heritage include a Zote brand soap bar and colorful “galletas,” or cookies, which in two paintings are embellished with real sugar sprinkles — a brilliant move that appeals to the appetite, much like Wayne Thiebaud’s use of thick paint as cake “icing.” The dominant items in the series are the various costly pills that made up his daily HIV cocktail (today he takes only a single tablet), and a host of household cleaners. This juxtaposition compares disinfecting the body with cleansing the home, but does so with a sense of whimsy. As with the cookie sprinkles, many of the pills are real ones, left over after he switched from one medication to another. 

Queer artist honorees in Terrill’s paintings include his close friend Teddy Sandoval and Félix González-Torres, both of whom died from AIDS, and Pop icons Robert Indiana and Andy Warhol, who succumbed from other causes. Collaged wrapped candies, like those used in González-Torres’s installations, pay tribute to him here. Indiana and Warhol are represented through replications and variations of their signature imagery, the LOVE logo and the Campbell’s Tomato Soup can. In one instance, “LOVE” is replaced with “LOSS” and in another the soup can houses PrEP, a present day preventive and treatment for HIV. For his homage to Sandoval, whom Terrill remembers as having a great sense of humor, a still life is replete with household products whose brand names are gay double entendres, such as “Homo Milk” and “Butch Hair Wax.” In the background, Terrill depicts an ornately framed portrait of his late friend and a painting in Sandoval’s style.

Recent recreations, such as “Summer Became an Endless Round of Parties, Said the Clone” (2023), resemble pages from a graphic novel offering a nostalgic view of the excesses that gay men enjoyed before the onset of AIDS. By contrast, “Still Life with ‘One-A-Day’ Pill and Peeled Lemon” (2023), which includes actual Paxlovid packaging and a dark skull based on a Robert Mapplethorpe photo, is a timely memento mori that points to obvious but perhaps overlooked similarities between AIDS and COVID-19. Through his lighthearted approach to documenting personal struggles, Terrill contributes meaningfully to the fight against racism and homophobia.

Joey Terrill, “My Friend Peter (LOSS)” (1998–2023), acrylic on canvas, 60 x 24 inches
2023 Still Life with Triumeq and Wrapped Candies that Remind Me of the Artist Felix Gonzalez Torres
Joey Terrill, “Still-Life with Triumeq and Wrapped Candies that Remind Me of the Artist Félix González Torres” (2023), acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 36 x 48 inches

Joey Terrill: Still Here continues at Marc Selwyn Fine Art (9953 South Santa Monica Boulevard, Beverly Hills, California) through March 3. The exhibition was organized by the gallery in collaboration with Rafael Barrientos Martínez.

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