Hunter Reynolds was a prized asset to the LGBTQ+ community and for HIV activism, as the artist fought homophobia and the AIDS crisis head on during the 1980s and ’90s. He passed on June 12 at the age of 62, in the comfort of his own home, according to ARTnews.
Reynolds was most iconically known for his drag persona, Patina du Prey, who he created in 1989 — the same year he learned he had contracted HIV. His signature look was not popular in the world of drag at the time; he straddled the lines between masculinity and femininity by wearing makeup but, for example, not shaving his body hair. He introduced this look through a photographic series named “Drag Pose,” which featured a wigless Reynolds in deep plunging V-necks showcasing his hairy chest.
Reynolds came out to his mother in 1973 at the age of 14. He was the first out person at his high school and founded the first gay and lesbian student union. After college, his first huge movement in the public eye stemmed from a quote he read by artist Mark Kostabi, from an article in Vanity Fair: “These museum curators, that are for the most part homosexual, have controlled the art world in the ’80s. Now they’re all dying of AIDS, and although I think it’s sad, I know it’s for the better. Because homosexual men are not actively participating in the perpetuation of human life.”
Artist and activist Hunter Reynolds models his famed Memorial Dress in 1994
This statement fueled Reynolds fire and he turned to ACT UP, where he would fight the stigma of HIV through protest, advocacy, art and much more. “I knew him and I lost it,” said Reynolds of Kostabi’s comment, in an interview with Another Man. “I had to do something so I got my voice together, stood up in front of the meeting for the first time, and created an action against him. 60 people showed up.”
From then on Reynolds became a public voice and hero for many. His most influential work followed with his Memorial Dress; a black gown screenprinted in gold letters with the some 26,000 names of New Yorkers taken due to the AIDS epidemic. Throughout his career the dress made waves and sparked emotional reactions. Reynolds described this influence to Another Man in 2019 and said, “People found the names of their friends on the dress and began crying, having cathartic events in front of me. I did six weeks of performances almost daily and it changed the direction of my work, connecting to the body and spirit, with the dress as a spiritual vortex to the universe.”
The Memorial Dress continued to tribute the lives lost. In 1996, Reynolds updated the dress with names added to his guest book over 3 years with assistance from the arts nonprofit, Visual AIDS. Patrick Owens, former president of Visual AIDS, shared his thoughts on Reynolds and his work through an email to ARTnews. “He bore witness to how a powerful and supremely creative voice can raise the visibility of long-term survivors who continue to inspire us. All of us at Visual AIDS honor Hunter as an artist, advocate, activist, collaborator, mentor, provocateur, visionary, and friend.”