National Gallery’s first General Idea retrospective ‘historic and long-awaited’

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AA Bronson, the sole surviving member of General Idea, recalls his surprise when the National Gallery of Canada first purchased a work created by the subversive art collective he helped found amid from the 60s.

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Titled Evidence of Body Binding, the piece consists of a series of black and white photographs of bound body parts transformed into 15 fluorescent light boxes and placed on the floor in a sculptural installation. Bronson hadn’t laid eyes on this striking arrangement in decades, but it’s now part of an ambitious new retrospective of General Idea’s work, an exhibition he helped put together. He was also present for the media preview this week.

Acquired by the gallery in 1973, the purchase initially sparked a few scratches for the trio of queer artists that made up General Idea. Bronson and his late partners, Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz, wondered why on earth the National Gallery would be interested in their work.

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“The National Gallery is awfully mainstream,” Bronson recalled. “Maybe we were doing something wrong.”

At the same time, they were thrilled, not only because it’s the most important public gallery in the country, but also because it was about struggling artists who wanted to pay their rent and eat. “We were very pleased, slightly mystified and really surprised,” said Bronson, who is now 76 and lives in Berlin. “But we really needed the money, so we were delighted.”

Dr. Adam Welch, Curator of the General Idea Retrospective Exhibition and Associate Curator of Canadian Art, National Gallery of Canada, speaks to the media at the gallery on June 1, 2022.
Dr. Adam Welch, Curator of the General Idea Retrospective Exhibition and Associate Curator of Canadian Art, National Gallery of Canada, speaks to the media at the gallery on June 1, 2022. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

For the gallery, the body linking piece was the start of a General Idea collection that has grown to include nearly 200 works. With elements on loan from other collections, the new exhibition is the most comprehensive retrospective ever on the trio. Almost 50 years after this initial acquisition, this is also the first General Idea retrospective mounted by the NGC.

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“This is historic and feels long overdue,” observed the show’s curator, Adam Welch, offering a theory as to why it took so long.

“Homophobia, plain and simple,” he said. “There are queer sexualities and non-normative sexualities in the work, even if it is always in this very poetic register. It’s quite oblique at times but nevertheless you see (references) to the kama sutra with poodles, or glass butt plugs, or this idea of ​​a threesome. Everyone thought the artists were in some kind of group, which they weren’t, but they played with that idea and used it to their advantage.

“So I think homophobia and structural oppression played into why they weren’t given the opportunity to exhibit in certain places.”

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General Idea was a revelation to Welch when he discovered their work as a gay teenager growing up in Toronto in the 90s. “I thought it was amazing that this group of queer artists came from Toronto,” said said the 38-year-old NGC Associate Curator of Canadian Art. “I admired them. I was coming out at the time and they were absolute role models for me in the way they lived and worked. It has always been a big dream for me to make this show.

New exhibition titled General Idea, being held at the National Gallery of Canada.
New exhibition titled General Idea, being held at the National Gallery of Canada. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

Although it had been proposed in the past, the exhibition did not get the green light until Sasha Suda, the gallery’s youngest director in more than a century, took over as director of the institution.

“It fits with Sasha coming in and new thinking and openness to diverse voices, thinking about black, indigenous and queer voices, and all the different perspectives that 10 or 20 years ago didn’t might not have taken place in national institutions,” Welch said.

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Undoubtedly, the work is bold, eye-catching, provocative and powerful, ranging from large installations such as Fin de siècle, a white polystyrene “ice cream” stage with a trio of faux fur baby seals, which fill an entire room, to small cards and photographs, including Portrait of General Idea, which depicts the three artists in a beefcake-style pose wearing tight bathing suits.

Arranged chronologically, the work takes viewers on an artistic journey, with exhibits dedicated to the 1971 Miss General Idea beauty pageant, a 1980s ode to consumerism and a life-size depiction of AIDS drugs, for n to name a few. It also includes publications, videos, drawings, paintings, sculptures and archival documents.

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Evidence of Body Binding was the first work by General Idea acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 1973. It is now part of a major retrospective of the work of the influential Canadian trio, presented at the gallery until to November 20.
Evidence of Body Binding was the first work by General Idea acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 1973. It is now part of a major retrospective of the work of the influential Canadian trio, presented at the gallery until to November 20. Photo by Lynn Saxberg /Postmedia

The specter of AIDS, the disease that took the lives of gastrointestinal partners Zontal and Partz in 1994, looms large, with several acres of walls devoted to the blue, red and green painting of the AIDS logo that has become part of pop culture, turned into posters and wallpaper.

Bronson, a perfectionist who says he “hates to let other people make decisions”, was intimately involved in the development of the show. His favorite part is the coin flow. “It’s the order of the pieces that I like the most,” said the Vancouver-born artist. “It plays out in different ways and you get the feelings of different decades as you go through the spaces.”

While General Idea has had dozens of solo shows in galleries and museums around the world, Bronson said it was a pleasure to see so much work together in an exhibition of this magnitude. He just wishes more people could see him.

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“I wish Canada’s capital was a bigger city,” he sighs, “and I wish there were direct flights here from New York. But I’m very happy with the exhibition and the catalog too.

The massive catalog includes over 500 illustrations and texts by a range of scholars. At the same time, a symposium of experts will discuss the career of General Idea from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the gallery. The event will also be streamed online. For more details, visit gallery.ca.

General idea
When: Until November 20
Where: National Gallery of Canada
Tickets: For timed admission tickets, visit gallery.ca

[email protected]

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