TORONTO — As scholar Saidiya Hartman’s speculative fiction demonstrates, one must sometimes revise history to include participants who were marginalized or occluded altogether, due to cultural prejudice. So when Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) curator Renata Azevedo Moreira conceived the exhibition Blurred Boundaries: Queer Visions in Canadian Art, to present works in the AGO collection through a queer lens, there were some inclusions that called for applying contemporary standards of tolerance and inclusivity to artists whose sexuality was purposefully obscure in their own time.
“[Some of these artists] lived at a time when homo-affective relationships were a crime — all around the world, not only in Canada,” said Moreira during an exhibition walkthrough, “but they were living a life that was out of the norms, and because of that we can talk about it as queer today.”
This sentiment pertains to works in the show like “Dawn” (c. 1948) by sculptor Frances Norma Loring. Born in Idaho in 1887, Loring was an extremely prominent sculptor in her day. After spending time in Europe and New York, she moved to Toronto in 1913, and represented Canada at the 1960 Venice Biennale. She also had a lifelong romantic partnership with another female sculptor, Florence Wyle. Nothing about “Dawn” is explicitly queer — it is a plaster relief of a nude female form releasing a trio of birds from her hands. Likewise Louis de Niverville’s painting “The Doll” (1976), which portrays a porcelain-faced doll releasing a tiny unicorn from her outstretched hand, is more strange than queer in a sexual sense — but part of queering the collection, in Moreira’s view, is including artists who were forced to conceal aspects of their identity in order to be recognized as part of their community.
In other works, such as “Advertisement: Homage to Benglis” (2011) by Cassils, which serves as the show’s lead image, gender identity and queerness are more central to the artwork itself. Cassils, who identifies as gender-nonconforming trans masculine and often uses their body as the mechanism or site of artworks, conceived the image in reference to Lynda Benglis’s controversial advertisement in the November 1974 edition of Artforum. At AGO, the portrait is hung against a backdrop of wheatpasted statements Cassils made in 2016 when the image was banned from use in advertisements displayed in Berlin train stations.
The show is limited to one gallery, with an A/V chamber at the end, yet Moreira does a lot with a little. Works on one side of the hall converse with those on the other. For instance, Zachari Logan’s “Wild Man 13, Flora” (2016) — one in a series of blue pencil self-portraits that envision the blending of man and nature — mirrors themes in “Beyond Words” (1975), a serigraph by Eric Metcalfe (in his alter ego Dr. Brute) that uses leopard print to transform everyday scenes into imaginative spaces. Both works reflect David Buchan’s photograph “Canadian Youth” (1989), part of the museum’s portfolio from Cold City Gallery, a groundbreaking gallery that served as a cultural flash point for Toronto’s art scene in the 1980s and ’90s. Cold City Gallery “was actually trying to create a model that was a hybrid between these two extremes” of art collective and for-profit gallery, said Moriera.
The exhibition also includes a wall of promotional posters by Toronto artist and club promoter Will Munro, who started the monthly party Vasaline/Vazaleen, which became a gathering point for Toronto’s queer community. By including selections from Munro’s archive in the context of fine art, the show presents something that Torontonians can recognize from daily life and recent history, and thus — like every work in Blurred Boundaries — it invites the viewer to recognize the ways in which queer art is not separate or other, but is actually always all around us.
Blurred Boundaries: Queer Visions in Canadian Art continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada) through September 25. The exhibition was curated by Renata Azevedo Moreira, AGO assistant curator of Canadian art.