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Blurred Boundaries: Queer Visions in Canadian Art at the AGO

Artist Cassils posed in a jockstrap with red lipstick
10 months ago

New installation of 13 works brings queer Canadian art into focus at the AGO

“What does it mean to explore, from a queer lens, our understanding of artistic practices today and 100 years ago?”

That is the question posed by Renata Azevedo Moreira, AGO Assistant Curator, Canadian Art in a new installation of works selected from the AGO Collection. It is not an exhaustive survey of queer art in Canada, but rather a thoughtful grouping of artists whose work disrupted the status quo and challenged societal norms in their day.

While not everyone under the 2SLGBTQ+ umbrella identifies as queer, within the context of this exhibition, queerness represents an impulse to challenge binary systems and think outside the box.

As you enter the long gallery space on the second floor, the works pop against the dark walls like beacons of resistance and hope. The first image you encounter is a striking photograph by Toronto-born artist Cassils, whose work will be familiar to visitors of the Gardiner Museum.

In 2020, the Gardiner presented the international premiere of Cassils’ performance work Up To and Including Their Limits. Suspended from a harness in a Plexiglas box covered in thick clay, the artist launched themselves back and forth, clawing, swinging at the walls, and hurling chunks of clay to the floor. The remnants of the performance remained on display as part of the special exhibition RAW.

Artist Cassils posed in a jockstrap with red lipstick
Cassils, Advertisement: Homage to Benglis, 2011. Part of the six-month durational performance Cuts: A traditional Sculpture. Archival pigment print, 101.6 x 76.2cm. © Cassils. Photo: Cassils with Robin Black, Courtesy of the artist.

Advertisement: Homage to Benglis (2011), a recent acquisition to the AGO Collection, features Cassils in a proud celebration of trans representation. Their muscular physique is contrasted by bright red lipstick that recalls pinup photos. The work is a nod to feminist artist Lynda Benglis who famously placed her own nude self-portrait (wielding a sex toy) in a 1974 issue of Artforum.

The image of Cassils, photographed by collaborator Robin Black, was used to promote the exhibition Homosexuality_ies, which travelled through Germany in 2015 and 2018. The poster was banned from German subway stations after government officials called it “sexualized”, “sexist”, and “pornographic.” A press release published by the artist in response to the decision called it “a glaring incident of transphobia, not just homophobia.” After facing criticism and accusations of censorship, the Deutsche Bahn reversed the ban.

Relief sculpture of a woman releasing birds
Frances Norma Loring. Dawn, c. 1948. Gelvized plaster mounted on wood, Overall: 101 × 142.5 cm, 29.5 kg. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of the Estates of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, 1983. © Art Gallery of Ontario 83/70

On the opposite wall hangs a plaster relief sculpture by Frances Norma Loring. In 1906, Loring enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago where she met Florence Wyle. The two sculptors moved to Toronto and established themselves in the Canadian art scene. They were domestic and creative collaborators for 55 years.

A text panel acknowledges the exhibition’s limited scope of representation. While queerness aims to be expansive, this presentation primarily features work by white, cisgender men, whose work has traditionally been valued and collected. By pointing out not only what is on display but what is not, the exhibition encourages us to consider who has been left out of the conversation and highlights the importance of equity in institutional collecting practices.

Despite the constraints of the collection, the installation presents a series of works in different mediums spanning 150 years that offers a glimpse into the exciting ways queerness can be conceptualized in Canada art. It is well worth a visit.

Toronto queer club posterWill Munro. Vaseline, January 21, 2000. Sheet: 28 × 22 cm. E.P. Taylor Library and Archives, Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of the Estate of Will Munro, 2011. © Art Gallery of Ontario LA.SC121.S1.1

Blurred Boundaries: Queer Visions in Canadian Art is on now until September and features work by Stephen Andrews, David Buchan, Cassils, Louis de Niverville, Andy Fabo and Michael Balser, Robert Flaherty, General Idea, Zachari Logan, Frances Norma Loring, Eric Metcalfe, Will Munro, and Edith S. Watson.

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