The AGO is showcasing 150 years of Canadian queer art, from the 1800s to today

The Art Gallery of Ontario's exhibit Blurred Boundaries features work from artists like Cassils, Will Munro, General Idea and Edith S. Watson.

'Queer relationships have always existed and are far from being a contemporary manifestation'

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 (Carlo Catenazzi, AGO)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. 

Summer may be winding down, but there's still plenty of time to experience one of its most notable queer art offerings: Blurred Boundaries: Queer Visions in Canadian Art, which runs through September 25th at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Featuring installations spanning 150 years, the Blurred Boundaries exhibit is a powerful illustration of the various ways queerness can be conceptualized in Canadian art.

"Exhibiting historic works is invaluable, as it shows that queer relationships have always existed and are far from being a contemporary manifestation," says Renata Azevedo Moreira, AGO Assistant Curator of Canadian Art, who put together the exhibit. 

Take, for example, the photographer Edith S. Watson, whose work was predominantly created well over a century ago.

"Everyone should see her album, 'Happy Voyages with Queenie in Canada,'" Moreira says. "It features photos of Watson and her companion 'Queenie' (the journalist Victoria Hayward) as they travelled around Canada at the end of the 1800s and beginning of 1900s."

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. Art Gallery of Ontario. Purchase, with funds by exchange and from James Lahey, 2022 © Cassils. (Photo: Cassils with Robin Black, Courtesy of the artist.)

Moreira also points to Toronto-born, Montreal-raised artist Cassils, whose 2011 archival pigment print "Advertisement: Homage to Benglis" pays tribute to Linda Benglis's historic 1974 feminist artwork "Advertisment." In collaboration with photographer and makeup artist Robin Black, Cassils appears in the work in all their ripped, transmasculine glory. 

"I think that no work in this grouping symbolizes resistance more than Cassils' 'Advertisement,'" she says. "It is a direct confrontation on the very definition of what a feminine or masculine body is supposed to look like, and if these concepts even make sense nowadays."

"The artist's choice to present it over wheat-pasted press releases denouncing the photographs' ban from German subway stations as an act of transphobia brings a necessary layer of activism to the exhibition."

Cassils and Watson's work is displayed alongside the mighty likes of General Idea, Will Munro, Zachari Logan, Frances Norma Loring, David Buchan and Robert Flack. Collectively, their work makes up the 13 installations of the exhibit — which, while by no means massive, is a towering presence in one of North America's largest art museums. 

"I think [queer art] has been embraced by segments of the art world, especially university galleries, artist-run centres, and experimental art spaces which stimulate the production of works that question pre-established concepts and the status quo in general," says Moreira. "Queer theory has had a huge impact in new media art, bioart, nanoart, and every practice that questions the limits between art, science, and technology." 

Will 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 (Art Gallery of Ontario)

However, queerness has been less present in traditional public institutions — "especially when it comes to openly stating that a show or an artist is queer in a title or on the label," says Moreira.

"There seems to be a fear that this can alienate or even offend part of the audience, or that queer art will only interest a queer audience — which is untrue and ignores one of art institutions' main functions, that is, to reflect the world through art. We need more curators interested in queering and decolonizing exhibitions and collections working inside all institutions."

Going forward, Moreira says she is excited about seeing more spaces and artists that "resist rigid classification and definitions, reflecting, as it does, a new generation brought up to see identity as not fixed or stable, but transient."

She names Concordia University's Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture and Technology, Brooklin's Eyebeam and The University of Western Australia's SymbioticA lab as some examples of the world's more "fruitful spaces" in this regard. 

"Among many others, these institutions centre queer definitions of what art is by proposing new terminology and providing inspiring environments for talented artists to create groundbreaking art," she says.

Zachari Logan. Wild Man 13, Flora, 2016. blue pencil on frosted polyester film, Sheet: 55.9 × 74.9 cm. Purchased with the financial assistance of the Dr. Michael Braudo Canadian Contemporary Art Fund and the Art Toronto 2016 Opening Night Preview, 2016. © Zachari Logan. 2016/160 (Art Gallery of Ontario)

Moreira also heralds the queer-focused Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York City.

"It is a necessary stop for any queer art lover who has the opportunity to travel there," she says. "The National Gallery of Canada also has a show right now presenting contemporary queer art called Over the Rainbow: Works by LGBTQ2S+ artists that I am excited to see soon, together with the General Idea exhibition, whose work is also present in Blurred Boundaries."

"My next show at the AGO is opening on October 8th and will be called Her Flesh and bring works by womxn artists including Alma Duncan, Nina Levitt, and Jess Dobkin, who all created and/or continue to create works that centre lesbian perspectives."

But moreover, Moreira encourages people to do research about artists "they find particularly unconventional in a museum, even if not openly declared." 

"They might bathe in queer perspectives that will definitely surprise you," she says. "It is much more common than one may think."

Blurred Boundaries: Queer Visions in Canadian Art continues at the AGO through September 25th.


Peter Knegt (he/him) is a writer, producer and host for CBC Arts. He writes the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and hosts and produces the talk series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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