Subversive Canadian art collective General Idea goes mainstream
The eclectic Canadian trio General Idea, who achieved international fame during their 25 years of practice (1969-1994), are about to reach new heights as the subject of a flagship exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. -arts of Canada. The exhibition, which opens this week, will feature around 200 works, including major installations, publications, videos, drawings, paintings and sculptures.
Although the exhibition’s curator, Adam Welch, has admitted his surprise that such a retrospective has so far not taken place at the National Gallery of Canada (the Art Gallery of Ontario of Toronto had organized one ten years ago), the group did not go unnoticed at the Ottawa museum. As Welch said The arts journal“We have exceptional works in the collection and this exhibition has allowed us to delve much deeper into these collections and, of course, to engage in extensive research with AA Bronson.”
General Idea was, in a way, invented by [William] Burroughs, even though he didn’t know
A. A. Bronson
Bronson is the sole surviving member of the trio and was instrumental in bringing the investigation to fruition. He will celebrate his 76th birthday two weeks after the show begins. Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal were the other members, both of whom died of AIDS in 1994. The disease dominated the trio’s work in their later years.
General Idea, a label they took on when one of their early works was mistakenly assumed to be the group’s name, is described in the National Gallery’s press release as: “Pioneers in the fields of conceptual, performance and queer art, experimenting with new art forms and taboo subjects, challenging the art world and social norms and paving the way for future generations of artists. Yet many may not be aware of the scope of their work, which now dates back almost three decades. “One of our goals with the show is to make General Idea’s complex practice a little more accessible to those coming to work for the first time,” Welch said.
Among their many influences was Andy Warhol. “It was impossible for our generation not to be influenced by Warhol,” writes Bronson in the huge 756-page catalog (filled with more than 500 illustrations) that accompanies the show. Beat Generation writer William Burroughs was another inspiration. “We thought of ourselves as Burroughs characters,” Bronson says. “General Idea was, in a sense, invented by Burroughs, although he didn’t know it.”
The trio initially formed in Western Canada but settled in Toronto, with forays into New York. Their initial collaboration took place at Theater Passe Muraille in Toronto. Among the city’s attractions at the time were Rochdale College, which offered free education and community living, and the Yorkville neighborhood, then the center of Toronto’s hippie community.
Warhol aside, the band are perhaps best known for their portrayal of pop artist Robert Indiana TO LIKE works, replacing the word “love” with “Aids”. The National Gallery’s collection now includes several versions of the image, the highlight being enhanced graffiti AIDS sculpture (1989), accessible to passers-by.
“Even though we started working on the exhibit long before our current pandemic, there are strong similarities to the AIDS crisis that have become apparent over the past two years,” Welch says. “Virtually all of General Idea’s work from 1987 to 1994 responded to the crisis as they experienced it in New York and Toronto. As queer men, they could see how different access to health care was for them…Today we see very similar inequalities laid bare by Covid.
Beauty pageants were another offering from General Idea, evoking Miss Canadiana, the performance personality of rising Canadian star Camille Turner. The fictional 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion [sic] also occupied them until it was razed by a fictional fire. The group was also active in the publishing business, with Megazine FILEe, a riff on the popular Life magazine. Their last hurrah came in 1994 with the Infection © ted Mondrian series, in which they replaced the yellow of Mondrian’s works with green. According to Bronson, it was the Dutch artist’s “most hated color”. Let General Idea stir the pot.
• General ideaNational Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, June 3-November 20
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