Thursday, October 06, 2011

AGO - General Idea Haute Culture

The AGO is showing a retrospective on the work of the trio of artists who called themselves "General Idea".  The three gay male Canadian artists (Felix Partz, AA Bronson and Jorge Zontal) were popular in the 1970-80s when they banded together to produce "conceptual art", where the ideas conveyed by the art were more important than the esthetics of the actual works themselves.   Their art forms spanned multiple mediums, ranging from photographs, paintings, sculptures, TV and videos, performance art.  They spurned individual fame and recognition for artistic merit, staying together as a collective until Felix and Jorge died of AIDs related illnesses in 1994.

The three of them are featured prominently in their work, either by physically including their images into photographic art, or symbolically representing themselves as trios of various forms, including one of their most iconic metaphors of themselves - the stereotypical gay man's dog - the poodle. Some of their most infamous poodle paintings are part of the Mondo Cane Kuma Sutra series showing 3 brightly coloured poodles in various states of erotic menage-a-trois sexual positions.

Their works spoofed the current culture of the times and often took familiar works of art and put their own spin on it.   I was quite fascinating with researching the sources of inspiration for some of their more famous pieces.

Their "XXX Blue" shows 3 large blue X's rendered using stuffed white poodles dipped in a familiar looking blue paint.  This is a direct reference to French artist Yves Klein, who was known for using the colour "International Klein Blue" in his paintings.  He covered nude models with this paint and had them roll around on canvas to create new works of art.   One of his performances is actually shown on YouTube.

Yves Klein's performance art influenced some of the video shenanigans of the General Idea, such as their deliberately offensively titled TV broadcast "Shut the F*** Up", which was commissioned for viewing in more liberally accepting Europe.  This broadcast used iconic images such as 1960s clips of Batman and Joker and Broadcast TV test tubes to examine the power of mass media and its relationship with the artist.

According to the writeup in the AGO exhibit, their subversive 1979 "Nazi Milk" photograph was actually based on the 1919 work "L.H.O.O.Q" where French French artist Marcel Duchamp drew a goatee and mustache on the Mona Lisa.  The contradiction of the provocatively named photo which shows a Hitler-esque mustache on a sweet faced boy holding the wholesome glass of milk achieves the shock value that they were probably going for.  Its interesting that the 1984 "Got Milk" ads which bear such a remarkable similarity to Nazi Milk are influenced by it than the other way around.

For a few years, General Idea published a magazine named FILE which was a parody and even an anagram of LIFE magazine.  Spoofing mainstream culture, celebrity and art, and providing an early medium for providing a point of view for the Gay Lesbian communities, FILE was, in the words of AA Bronson, "An alternative to Alternative Press".  When LIFE sued them for copyright infringement, they turned FILE into Art Metropole magazine.

In the later years of their career, the focus of their art become more serious as General Idea strived to destigmatize the word AIDS, as the crises became more prominent both socially and personally for this group.  Again twisting a well known image for their own purpose, they created their "AIDS" installation as a direct tribute to Robert Indiana's famous work "Love".

Their series of AZT photos and sculptures use the HIV-battling pills to personify the AIDS disease.  An entire room is devoted to an installation containing rows of small AZT pills mounted on a wall (said to represent a year's dosage) and several large capsules on the ground that the tour guide interpreted as being the size of a coffin or sarcophagus.  These works really bring home the sombering reality that this disease imposed on its sufferers.

It was very enlightening to see this exhibit and learn what this group was all about.  To coin a cliché,  I now have the general idea about General Idea.  It makes me sad to think about how this group's innovativeness, brazen creativity and wicked sense of humour was cut short by AIDS,  how they possibly could still be alive if they were born even a decade later, and how lonely AA Bronson must have felt to be left behind alone.

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