I.3 Queer Episodes in Canadian Art

Sat Oct 29 / 9:00 – 10:30/ Debates Room, rm 2034, Hart House

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  • Erin Silver, University of British Columbia

The Massey Report of 1951 promoted the cultivation of a distinctly Canadian culture to bolster Canada’s international identity, and propelled the development of several government-sponsored cultural initiatives that are still foundational to Canada’s cultural communities today. While cultural activity in Canada was burgeoning throughout the 1960s, and despite changes to Canada’s criminal code in 1969 (Bill C-150, which decriminalized homosexual acts between men over the age of consent of 21), sexual orientation was not added to the Canadian Human Rights Act until 1996, resulting in only a partial decriminalization, or, in Tom Hooper’s estimation, a recriminalization, of homosexuality in the time in between. With Canadian art and culture being promoted on the international stage at the same time as LGBTTQ2A+ individuals were not fully legitimized as citizens, what kinds of subcultures flourished in the underground? What was the role of artists in not only supporting gay liberation, but also making Canadian culture just a little bit gay?

This session focuses on episodes in Canada’s queer art history, loosely centered on the late-1960s to the late-1980s. The enduring push, since the 1950s, for legislation supporting LGBTTQ2A+ rights, coupled with Canada’s artworld centres being largely built and defined, in the 1960s and 1970s, by the experimental practices and institutional initiatives of feminist and queer artists, support a view of Canada as queerly operating in relation to dominant art historical discourse. Examining the technologies and mediums at artists’ disposal during this time, this session asks presenters and audiences to think through the parasitic, conspiratorial, camp, and disidentifying nature of much queer Canadian art practices through these decades.

keywords: queer, Canadian art, gay liberation, subcultures

I.3.1 The Word Made Flesh

  • Jon Davies, Stanford University

This paper attempts to unpack a striking essay by the late Toronto art critic John Bentley Mays entitled Miracles of Emanuel Jaques that appeared in issue #2 of C magazine in summer 1984. Jaques was the Portuguese-Canadian boy whose brutal rape and murder in the summer of 1977 led to the “cleaning up” of the Yonge Street adult entertainment district in Toronto and a vitriolic backlash against the city’s gay community at a crucial moment in its development. Jaques’s story is central to the history and mythology of Toronto, certainly, but it was quite a leap for Mays to use the boy’s destruction and its effects as a means of discussing changes in artistic production in Toronto over the seven years since the crime took place, as he does here. Re-reading this strange text now, during another moral panic around sexuality complete with claims of LGBTQ people “grooming” children, feels particularly uncanny and urgent. Radiating out from Mays’s essay, I chart a constellation of figures, sites and artworks that illuminate the shifting aesthetic, political, sexual, and social landscape in Toronto in this era, one where artists were aligning themselves with sexual non-normativity—in their support of the gay liberation newspaper The Body Politic when it was put on trial soon after the Jaques case, for example—despite the threat of repression. While the artist’s group General Idea are barely mentioned in Mays’s essay, they haunt it, having sparked a certain crisis of faith in its author. GI, Colin Campbell, Lisa Steele and other artists lived and worked on the Yonge St. “sin strip,” while artist Rodney Werden made work examining sex work and sexual transgression. While Yonge St. is not prominently visible in their work, I consider how its energies are perhaps latent in their practices.

keywords: art criticism, postmodernism, Toronto, sexuality, criminality

Jon Davies is a curator, writer and PhD Candidate in Art History at Stanford University where he is completing his dissertation entitled The Fountain: Art, Sex and Queer Pedagogy in San Francisco, 1945–1995. He previously held curatorial positions at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Oakville Galleries and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. His book Trash: A Queer Film Classic was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2009, and his anthology More Voice-Over: Colin Campbell Writings was published by Concordia University Press in 2021. He recently co-edited issue #6 of Little Joe magazine with Sam Ashby.

I.3.2 GAI with a Very Proper Stranger: The Courtroom Drawings of The Body Politic on Trial, 1979/1982

Adrian Deveau, Concordia University

In 1982, the Canadian gay magazine The Body Politic was charged by the federal government for publishing “obscene material” in their article “Lust with a Very Proper Stranger” by Angus Mackenzie, documenting the experiences of fisting during gay sex. First appearing on trial in 1979 for publishing “obscene” content and charged again in 1982, The Body Politic pleaded their case for gay visibility in their magazine, challenging the homophobic majoritarian structures of censorship embedded in Canadian policing systems. Seated in the courtroom with pen and paper in-hand, members associated with GAI (Gay Art Involvement), later known as JAC, captured the trial through sketches, memorializing the turbulent history of queer censorship laws after the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969. The Toronto-based queer arts collective GAI contributed to the trajectory of queer art in the land now-called Canada, not only through the visual medium, but in the grounding of an emerging political agency in queer activism. No longer relying on the publications of magazines within the underbelly of queer subcultures, the courtroom drawings magnified the monumental events of Canadian censorship policy for public viewing at the ArQuives in Toronto. The medium of sketching, particularly in the courtroom drawings, allowed for spontaneous and unregulated access to the documentation of queer activism, bypassing the historical lapse in gallery shows to concretize the aesthetics of queer life in real-time. By highlighting the 1982 courtroom drawings as a turning point for queer art in Canada, I argue that GAI members explicitly shape queer identity as a subjectivity of placemaking outside of the amalgamating forces of Canadian hetero-reproductive nationhood.

keywords: queer activism, sketching, censorship, Canadian policy, Gay Art Involvement

Adrian Deveau (he/they) is a PhD student in Art History at Concordia University (Montreal, QC) and holds an MA in Art History and Theory from the University of British Columbia. Adrian has worked with arts-based organizations including Thinking Through the Museum: Museum Queeries (Montreal/Winnipeg), the Museum of Anthropology (Vancouver), Vancouver Biennale, Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre, and Reelout Film Festival. In their research, Adrian is interested in the intersection of queer art and political protest, artist-run centre culture, and the methodology of Telepathy within the archive. Adrian’s current dissertation project traces the formations of queer counter-cultural arts movements in artist-run centres across the land now-called Canada from 1993 to the present.

I.3.3 Afternoon Tea: The Public Life of Hilda Vincent Foster

  • India Rael Young, University of Victoria

The Victoria Sketch Club, an extension of the Island Arts and Crafts Society, occupied the quiet yet forceful centre of the Victoria arts community in the mid-century. Even as the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria openned in the mid-1950s this group of predominently white women gathered month after month for tea and painting. Some were professional artists in museums, design, and teaching and others were amateur artists who enjoyed the commroderie. From the 1940s through the 1960s Hilda Vincent Foster acted as central orbit for this group. This paper explores the exterior life of an artist in a lifelong same-sex relationship and the women with whom she surrounded herself. Only a handful of her artworks found their way into few institutions. And yet, the artist known as Vince fostered a community for other gay women when she created a place of welcome amdist the seemingly provincial set of ladies who lunch. This paper compares the ephemera connected to Foster and her life as an artist with the remembrances of her friends and family. Foster’s experiences, artistic production, and surviving records parallel thousands of Canadian women artists of her era. The places she exhibited and the type of public attention she received paint a picture of Miss Foster’s place within the Canadian art world of her lifetime. By contextualizing these artworks, ephemera and remembrances, this paper points to the social strategies used to define and proscribe feminine gender in the mid-twentieth century even while the artist herself subverted such constraints.

keywords: women artists, subculture, Queer, Canadian art, LQBTQ+

India Rael Young is the Curator of Art and Images at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia and an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria. Her scholarship centers on reproducible arts media and Indigenous arts. Young graduated in 2017 with a doctorate in art historyfrom the University of New Mexico. She went on to Princeton University Art Museum as the Andrew W. Mellon Research Specialist in Native American Art. Young curates exhibitions internationally, most recently Between Us: Adad Hannah’s Social Distancing Portraits. She has written for BlackFlash, Canadian Art, and First American Art on topics ranging from works on paper to new media. Young also consults on inclusive collection strategies and institutional decolonization.

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