National Gallery of Canada |  The luminous epic of General Idea

National Gallery of Canada | The luminous epic of General Idea

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The National Gallery of Canada, in collaboration with AA Bronson, the last living member of General Idea, presents until November 20 a major retrospective dedicated to this trio of Canadian visual artists who had a substantial international echo in the years 1970, 1980 and 1990. The exhibition illustrates the influence of General Idea (GI) in the artistic and social fields, his multifaceted talent and the pioneering and enlightening character of his interventions.

Posted at 7:26

Eric Clement

Eric Clement
The Press

Why a General Idea retrospective in 2022? First, because the curator of Canadian art at the NGC, Adam Welch, met before the pandemic AA Bronson, now 76 years old. He is the only survivor of General Idea (GI), Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal having died of AIDS in 1994. Adam Welch proposed the subject to the museum which accepted it, the NGC having never paid such a tribute to GI.


PHOTO PROVIDED BY THE NGC

Self-Portrait with Objects [Autoportrait avec objets] (detail), 1981-1982, montage, gelatin silver print, 35.6 cm x 27.7 cm. NGC collection (1985). © General Idea. On the work: Bronson, Zontal and Partz

Another reason lies in the fact that the trio tackled, from 1969 to 1994, today very topical themes such as discrimination, sexism, gender identity, populism or the environment. The exhibition is the largest display ever dedicated to General Idea, with 200 creations, paintings, drawings, installations, sculptures, photographs, videos, etc.

Works by General Idea

  • The sculptures Monday, Wednesday, Saturday (1984), by GI, in front of the Cave Canem plaster tile installation.

    PHOTO SIMON SÉGUIN-BERTRAND, PROVIDED BY LAW

    The carvings Monday, Wednesday, Saturday (1984), by GI, in front of the plaster tile installation Cave Canem.

  • Pharma©opia [Pharma©opée], 1992, helium-filled urethane and nylon airships.  With permission of the artist.  © General Idea.

    PHOTO NGC-L. COOK, PROVIDED BY THE NGC

    Pharma©opia [Pharma©opée], 1992, helium-filled urethane and nylon airships. With permission of the artist. © General Idea.

  • The AIDS work developed as wallpaper in one of the rooms

    PHOTO BWALLACE, PROVIDED BY THE NGC

    The work AIDS developed as wallpaper in one of the rooms

  • View of the General Idea exhibition

    PHOTO BWALLACE, PROVIDED BY THE NGC

    View of the exhibition General-Idea

  • Magi©Bullet [Médi©ament miracle], 1992, installation with helium-filled mylar balloons, 25 cm x 65 cm x 25 cm each.  Defares Collection.  And, on the floor, Magi©Carpet [Tapis magi©], 1992, installation with fluorescent lights.  Defares Collection.  © General Idea.

    PHOTO BWALLACE, PROVIDED BY THE NGC

    Magi©Bullet [Médi©ament miracle], 1992, installation with helium-filled mylar balloons, 25 cm x 65 cm x 25 cm each. Defares Collection. And on the ground Magi©Carpet [Tapis magi©], 1992, installation with fluorescent lights. Defares Collection. © General Idea.

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We must place ourselves in the context of 1969 to understand the emergence of GI. Members of the younger generation and their parents were no longer really on the same wavelength. Young people were looking for freedom, entertainment, a better future and sexual liberation. They will be well served by Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz and AA Bronson, three “bad boys”, gay and proud of it, who will force the media to talk about homosexuality through their art. Of homosexuality and AIDS, since the last ten years of their activity have been devoted to sensitizing public opinion on the tragedies of this disease, the importance of providing people with adequate health care and not stigmatizing them .

If General Idea had been New York, its founders would have been rich and famous, wrote colleague Christopher Hume of Toronto Star in 1988. A fair statement when you consider the abundance, exuberance and brilliance of GI. Inspired by thinker Marshall McLuhan, the group produced what would today be called queer art. With provocation, derision, irreverence and humour. With the desire to position itself against the rigid morality of the time, as we see in the exhibition with some objects with a sexual connotation, in particular in the diversion of the work flying heartsby Marcel Duchamp.

But shocking was not the only objective. GI endeavored to evoke universal subjects. To make you think. The condition of gays was part of it, yes, but the artists also criticized the more sordid aspects of popular culture, including television, the commercialization of art and threats to biological diversity.

As, for example, in their installation End of century (three seals on an ice floe), which also and above all referred to their own imminent disappearance. A gigantic work that occupies an entire room in the museum and is reminiscent of painting The Polar Seaby Caspar David Friedrich.


PHOTO BWALLACE, PROVIDED BY THE NGC

End of the century, 1990, General Idea, installation with faux fur in acrylic, plastic, straw, expanded polystyrene. Carmelo Graci collection. © General Idea.

The exhibition obviously includes works related to the HIV-AIDS epidemic, created after the artists moved from Toronto to New York in 1986. The first of these welcomes the visitor at the entrance to the museum. This is’AIDSfamous sculpture (but also poster) created using the same graphics as the LOVE by Robert Indiana. A work-slogan that has been very successful, going viral like today a video on TikTok.


PHOTO SIMON SÉGUIN-BERTRAND, PROVIDED BY LAW

The sculpture AIDSin front of the NGC

We also find their parody, in 1972, of the magazine Life who becomes Queue ! Their fake beauty contests (Miss General Idea) who criticized the tastelessness of TV shows and the most hackneyed clichés. You can admire images of these competitions and read the letter from a woman who had finally refused to take part, claiming that the initiative was “sexist”. A strong position taken in 1971…

Many works pay homage to the artists that GI adored: Joseph Beuys, Yves Klein, Tom Thomson, Lucio Fontana, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian or even Gerrit Rietveld. Others let you see them in action. For the duration of the exhibition, the museum allows visitors to postpone viewing General Idea videos until they return home. Don’t miss the viewing of Shut the Fuck Up (1985), shown at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in 1993 (year of the retrospective General-Idea at the Power Plant in Toronto), a critique of stardom. Or the videos Test Tube (1979) and Cornucopia (1982).

This retrospective will go in 2023 to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the first museum to have presented a monographic exhibition of General Idea, in 1979. Note that the National Gallery of Canada has also published a monumental catalog (750 pages) to accompany the exhibition. It includes all the works of General Idea and texts by prestigious specialists of this group of artists who knew how to combine art and social responsibility.


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