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visual art

Evidence of Body Binding

Haute Culture at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Until Jan. 1, 2012, 317 Dundas St. W., Toronto; ago.net

It would be impossible for me to write an objective response (objectivity being a conceit I distrust anyway) to the Art Gallery of Ontario's massive and spectacular Haute Culture: General Idea – A Retrospective, 1969-1994. I'm not even going to try.

If, like me, you came of art age in the 1980s and early 90s, General Idea (GI), the collective of Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson (the sole surviving member, who has carried on with his own thriving art practice), were Canada's only true international art sensations – a team of geniuses whose works (and antics) you aspired to copy.

More important, GI's layered dissections of everything from art world pretensions to right-wing sexual moralizing, and on to the emerging, and eventually engulfing, AIDS crisis, both informed, and inspired a sharper smarter tone in, your own practice.

There was simply no escaping GI's influence. There still isn't. One sees echoes of their work everywhere.

So, setting aside any notions of crafting a traditional review of this retrospective, of works that are to me and my generation as seminal as, say, the AGO's other summer blockbuster, Abstract Expressionist New York, is to the baby boomers, here follows an unapologetically personal top three reasons General Idea's work matters as much today as it did when it first arrived.

Glamour

Until GI took over the world, Canadian art, while producing many celebrities (Painters Eleven come to mind) in the modern sense of the term, had yet to generate artists who both accepted celebrity status and actively mocked the designation.

GI one-upped Warhol, who revelled in being a star, and became stars by constantly denying, undermining, or otherwise messing with the very notion of art stardom. Look at any of the many staged photographs of the trio (as babies in bed, as doctors, as pretty boy models) and you see not a group of men attempting to emphasize image over substance, but rather to use constructed self-images as both substantial, loaded portraits and, simultaneously, as images that destabilized the act of posing, of self-aggrandizing.

This embrace/denial of their status played out in hundreds of variations – from outright challenges to the art media (via their art magazine FILE, which poked fun at academic art chat), to their many representations of themselves as poodles (yes, poodles); a metaphor for the artist as a trick-performing pet.

As their fame grew, GI did more and more to undermine the systems that create and sustain fame – thus becoming arch postmodern stars, precursors to the now common celebrity-who-shuns-celebration. Put simply, GI had it both ways: big, exquisitely fabricated international exhibitions showcasing their wry suspicion of all the notoriety and applause.

The poodles never turned into slobbering Saint Bernards. The poodles kept their teeth razor sharp.

Queerness

While GI were hardly Canada's first openly gay artists (a handful of poets and playwrights beat them to that), they were certainly Canada's first aggressively gay artists – not merely by self-declaration but also, and far more importantly, via their deeply queer work.

Embracing blunt sexuality, drag, fetishism, and depicting same via an array of vehicles – from video to photography to topsy-turvy beauty pageants to painting and sculpture – GI made it impossible for viewers to not recognize what was in front of them, to engage in the voluntary blindness that, at the time, was the default response to queer art.

While responses to their early work ranged from outrage to euphemistic endorsement (one critic referred to GI as "trendy young men," an infantilizing strategy that conveniently allowed for an overlooking of their very adult, forthright presentation of gay sexual habits), by the time GI were in full, iconic (but icon denying) swing, there was no way to process their work without facing its innate gayness. GI liked sex and refused to apologize for it, or tamely contextualize this simple reality for a mass audience.

Later, when AIDS began to decimate the art world, helped by a stumblebum medical industry, GI applied the same forthrightness to their fierce response pieces – giant assemblages of sculptures resembling AZT pills, pill-shaped silver balloons marked "Magic Bullet," and costume play with themselves as Three Stooges-style doctors. For those of us who survived the first AIDS wave, GI gave voice and ownership to our collective rage.

Looking at these works today, it is tempting to dismiss them as overly didactic – but only if you live in a dream world, one where AIDS is not still ravaging millions.

Maximalism

To describe the bulk of Canadian art as restrained, even severe, is an understatement. We do love a cold, empty room 'round these parts.

GI, however, with their revolutionary concept of the "pavilion" – an open-ended, not studio or gallery-bound presentation situation – allowed them to think, and act, big. Very big. There's a good reason Haute Culture takes up two floors of the AGO: The installations and multimedia constructions are room-engulfing, and yet meant to be portable.

This knocking down of the gallery fourth wall (to borrow a term from theatre), has been a boon to a parade of subsequent artists, multimedia and performance, who think big, and make big.

In tandem, GI wiped out forever the tired concept of "mastery" – the idea that artists should find one medium in which to excel and stick to it forever. They explored every genre.

Dream big, GI demonstrated, and you'll be big. Make more, and you'll be more.

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