Written by Jeff Parker & Craig Corpora
The Shroud of Buddha (1992) is the first addition to Jerome Caja’s other artworks in the SFMOMA collection since the the artist’s death in 1995.
Jerome faced his own mortality from AIDS by tailoring three life-sized shrouds: The Shroud of Bozo, The Shroud of Glam-O-Rama, and The Shroud of Buddha, each one a perfect fit for his public personas: the clown, a drag queen, an enigmatic muse. The shrouds started out as rubbings of his made-up face, his living flesh forming the facial features. Ghostly smudges from mascara, eye shadow, foundation, blush, lipstick on his face were transferred to textile, stretched, embedded with his own “DNA,” then gloriously and elaborately embellished, and marketed as “genuine.”
Jerome described The Shroud of Bozo, “as wide as bed sheet, with hair out to here,” gesturing with arms spread. The Shroud of Glam-O-Rama was on a cheesecloth-type material, “wispy, sparkly, and delicate, so you could see through it in places.” The shrouds all included shadowy imprints of hands or fingers clutching the textile, supporting it in place; the artist taking creative control, shaping his own final arrangements. “You can tell it’s me in The Shroud of Buddha by my nail polish,” he laughed, flickering his red fingernails before his eyes.
Today it appears that only The Shroud of Buddha survives. Jeff Parker and James Collins purchased it from the artist in 1992 with the understanding that it would eventually be donated to the SFMOMA, and this unrestricted gift fulfills that promise.
The Shroud of Buddha was created for and premiered at The Remains of the Day exhibition at Southern Exposure Gallery in 1992. The Remains of the Day, guest curated by City Lights Books editor Amy Scholder and artist/designer Rex Ray, was a powerful testimony and elegy to the effects of AIDS on an artist’s career. Jerome Caja used a friend and mentor’s ashes, the cremains of Charles Sexton, who had died from AIDS the year before at age 34, to create works of art for this groundbreaking and challenging show. This exhibit was installed in San Francisco well before the ACT UP Ashes to Action protest where activists staged a “political funeral” to express grief and rage at President George H.W. Bush’s inaction, by dumping the ashes of loved ones who died from AIDS on the White House lawn in Washington, DC.
The Shrouds are ghosts and reliquaries of the vanished artist; as clown, as drag queen, and as a joyful participant in the sorrows of the world: “It really is me behind there, and I am watching you.”
Special thanks to Anthony Cianciolo of The Jerome Project and the Estate of Jerome Caja for their work in preserving and promoting Jerome’s legacy.
Collection SFMOMA – Gift of Jeff Parker &
James Collins, 2018