Exhibition Review

General Idea. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario. June 3 –November 20, 2022. Curated by Adam Welch. Catalogue edited by Adam Welch

  • Matthew Lawrence

…more information

  • Matthew Lawrence
    MISt, McGill University

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Cover of Number 95, Spring 2023, pp. 6-194, Archivaria

In June 2022, the National Gallery of Canada staged a sweeping summer exhibition dedicated to the pop art–inspired trio General Idea, three queer Canadian artists who worked together for a quarter century beginning in 1969. Featuring over 200 works spanning the duration of the group’s time together, the chronologically arranged exhibition was organized by Adam Welch, the National Gallery’s associate curator of modern Canadian art. The exhibition opens with a colourful room that situates viewers while introducing motifs that recur throughout the show: coats of arms, the repeated square AIDS icon, poodles, seals, and self-portraits of the trio (sometimes also depicted as poodles and seals). These images tease out notions of commerce and power, themes that repeat and expand throughout the show, while also interrogating the collective self. The self-portraits are situated on a visually dominant wallpaper, the word AIDS running beneath the highly stylized images. Wall text in the first room defends the word queer, acknowledging that the word “is continually in flux, means different things to different people, and is not embraced by all.” After the introductory gallery, the self-titled exhibition continues chronologically, beginning with materials from the period when the group had had a looser membership and no name to act as an umbrella for itself. Early members of the collective included men and women of various sexual orientations, but by 1973, General Idea had narrowed its membership to just three queer men – sardonic and media-savvy tricksters – who each used adopted names: Canadian- born AA Bronson (born Michael Tims) and Felix Partz (Ronald Gabe), as well as Jorge Zontal (Slobodan Seia-Levi), who was born in an Italian camp for Jewish refugees during the Second World War. These three produced work as General Idea until 1994, with no member taking individual credit for any part of the work. The earliest works in the exhibition include performances and conceptual interventions – a surreal beauty pageant, a storefront – represented in the space through text and photographs. These early works eventually drew attention from a gallerist, who mistook the title of one piece (General Idea) for the name of the artists, thereby giving the collective its name. The second room is perhaps the richest in terms of sheer archival content; documentation of the performances and interventions are paired with background texts describing how they did or did not work. The Belly Store, for instance, was a boutique operated by Zontal for a month, during which only one item was for sale: a General Idea multiple entitled George Saia’s Belly Food. Despite pricing the work at only $10, Zontal failed to sell a single piece. This richness of detail, paired with extensive photographic documentation, demands more time of the viewer than other rooms in the exhibition and results in a somewhat jarring shift of pace after the brightly coloured room preceding it. Unfortunately, the handwritten text and vitrines of photographs were challenging to study closely and a bit overwhelming, particularly in contrast to the more easily digestible work in the previous room. In this space, we also begin to see how print media and mail distribution are both central to understanding General Idea. Documentation is taken to whimsical extremes in one example, the self-explanatory Orgasm Energy Chart (1970), which required willing participants to track their pleasure for a month and mail findings back to the artists. Here, lines between an artwork and an archival record of that work blur. Elsewhere in the space, we see the collective’s continued engagement with these concepts of documentation and dissemination, through issues of FILE Megazine, a publication …