Friday, 8 April 2016

WHAT'S THE GENERAL IDEA?

OBJECT OF THE WEEK

BY: NATANIA SHERMAN


Poodle Triads are the Ultimate Representation of Glamour. (Source)
She's got beauty she's got grace, she’s... a postmodern art concept? Today I plan on channeling the 1980’s with a look at the1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion, by a Toronto based art collective called General Idea, that took place at the Art Gallery of Ontario. General Idea was a trio made up of artists, AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, who created art together between 1969 and 1994 when Zontal and Partz passed away. General Idea embodied postmodern art practice because they embraced pop culture and kitsch while operating at the intersection of high and low art, culture and commerce. Over the course of their careers, Bronson, Zontal and Partz created countless films, printed matter and performances and TV spots featuring recurring themes and motifs of surfaces glamour, and desire.  To quote the exhibition card for the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion, "We wanted to be famous; we wanted to be glamorous; we wanted to be rich. That is to say we wanted to be artists...We knew that if we were famous, if we were glamorous, we could say we were artists and we would be. We did and we are. We are famous, glamorous artists." From poodles and pills to pageantry and pavilions, General Idea’s body of work is a provocative look at what it was like to live in the 1980’s. General Idea is perhaps best known for their long-running publication, File magazine, which closely resembled the popular Life magazine, their inversion of Robert Indiana's famous LOVE poster of 1964 into their AIDS poster, and for the Miss General Idea concept.

P is for Poodle: A Portrait of Bronson, Zontal and Partz (Source)


The Miss General Idea Pavilion was an idea that evolved over the course of General Idea’s art practice. The first pavilion was held in 1970 and recurred in various forms finally culminating in the 1984 pavilion at the AGO. The Miss General Idea Pavilion was a performance resembling a televised beauty pageant to search for and crown Miss General Idea from a crowd of costumed contestants of all genders. The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion was not limited to a single work of art, but existed as a concept that spanned several years and many different artworks, including File magazine editorials, floor plans, postcards and even a boutique created by the artists. The mythology surrounding the 1984 pavilion in particular was intentional, 1984 is famous for being the title of a dystopian novel by George Orwell. The Miss General Idea Pavilion does not take place in “our” 1984 but in Orwell’s version of that year. In fact, it was 1985 by the time the 1984 pavilion came to the AGO, after being shown internationally. In addition to the pageant, the pavilion in its many incarnations often included a boutique counter in the shape of a dollar sign, manned by a sales associate, which sold printed material by General Idea. The boutique concept often scandalized the art world by bringing commerce into the autonomous art space.

Dollah Dollah Bills, Y'all (Source)
The Miss General Idea Pavilion was a way for General Idea to critique the art world, institutions, popular media and even the audience. A showcard for the pageant reads: “The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion is basically this: a framing device for our own devices to contain our frame-ups. The Search for the Spirit of Miss General Idea is the ritualized pageant of creation, production, selection, presentation, competition, manipulation and revelation of that which is suitable for framing.” In 1982, in order to critique the museum space the trio even created fictional ruins of their 1984 pavilion, featuring of a trio of poodles,  so they could "excavate" "archaeological" objects that museums could be comfortable displaying.

1971 Concept for Miss General Idea (Source)
General Idea was at the vanguard of a contemporary art scene centered around Toronto’s Queen Street West in the 1970’s and 80’s in Toronto. This particular era in Canadian art rarely gets the attention it deserves because many of the artists working at the time lived on the margins of society, and many members of this community of artists were affected by the AIDS crisis, marginalizing them further. This has been a huge detriment to the study of Canadian art because it has taken a very long time for artists and art collectives like General Idea to become household names. Both Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal succumbed to AIDS related illnesses in 1994. General Idea, in surviving member AA Bronson’s words, “emerged in the aftermath of the Paris Riots, from the detritus of hippie communes, under-ground newspapers, radical education, Happenings, love-ins, Marshall McLuhan, and the international Situationists. We believed in a free economy, in the abolition of copyright, and in a grassroots horizontal structure that prefigured the internet.” General Idea has undoubtedly left an impact on the city of Toronto, they founded Art Metropole, (where you should go if you want to spend all your grocery money on art books) and created shocking imagery that persist in the popular imagination. So get out there and don’t forget to channel the spirit of Miss General Idea to question the boundaries of high and low, fantasy and reality, art and commerce and poodles. Always poodles.


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