As a group of three men who identified as gay, the artist group General Idea (active 1969–1994) played with notions of gender and sexuality. Their performances and imagery pushed the boundaries of sexual identity representation at a time when key changes were taking place in North America with regard to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights. In 1968, just before group members AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal met in Toronto, Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau introduced an omnibus bill that reformed Canadian law with regards to homosexuality, as well as abortion and contraception. Implemented in 1969, the year that General Idea was founded, amongst other things, it decriminalized homosexuality. That same year, New York City was rocked by the Stonewall riots, a series of violent protests against the police raid of a gay bar in Greenwich Village.
In 1971 in Toronto, the The Body Politic, “Canada’s gay newspaper of record,” was founded. In the same period, other spontaneous actions of civil resistance and community organization occurred. For instance, a series of small-scale picnics on Hanlan’s Point, Toronto Islands, began in concert with civil rights marches.
Despite these moments of declaration, equality remained elusive, and there existed widespread violence against and surveillance and repression of LGBT communities. In January 1979, General Idea participated in a public demonstration against an obscenity charge that had been laid against The Body Politic the previous year, contributing a performance titled Anatomy of Censorship. On February 5, 1981, the Toronto police coordinated Operation Soap, a large-scale raid on four Toronto bathhouses that led to the arrest of more than three hundred men—including Zontal. This raid led to public outcry and large protests, which galvanized support across the country and reframed the struggle for equality as one of human rights.
General Idea’s work should be understood in the context of this paradigm shift. Though their art is now seen as unabashedly speaking to queer identity, this theme was not addressed by critics until the mid-1980s. In the art world at the time, sexuality was not a topic that could be raised. The artists did not experience censorship; rather, this facet of their projects was simply ignored. Bronson explained, “Sexuality was kind of a dangerous subject in the art world. Sex was never touched upon. And, to call yourself a gay artist would be, of course, the death knell of your career.”
Despite this, General Idea made many brazen and playful references to queer identity in their works, such as Baby Makes 3, 1984/89. In this portrait, Bronson, Zontal, and Partz are depicted in bed together, with the covers pulled up to their chins. Rosy cheeks and softly rounded faces suggest innocence and infantalization. The trio alludes to a traditional nuclear family while also suggesting a queering of this format. This reference to family also reflects the nature of General Idea’s collaboration, as the group’s domestic lives and art production were very much entwined.
Bronson recalls the group’s desire to have critics discuss their work in terms of sexuality and has said the group baited art critics by “being more and more outrageous all of the time.” For instance, Mondo Cane Kama Sutra, 1984, clearly depicts trios of fornicating neon poodles. The poodle was a key symbol in General Idea’s oeuvre, primarily intended as a clichéd image that signifies gayness in mainstream North American culture: Bronson has said, “The poodle stands for the queer artist.” Despite the overt sexual imagery in the paintings, critics discussed these works in relation to the trio’s artistic collaboration. Finally, by 1986, General Idea was written about in terms of queer identity. The shift, Bronson noted, was one of attitude: “Prior to that it was just considered embarrassing or something.”
Following the end of General Idea’s collaboration in 1994, with the deaths of Partz and Zontal from AIDS-related causes, contemporary scholars such as Virginia Solomon have sought to address the queer dimension of the group’s work.
This Essay is excerpted from General Idea: Life & Work by Sarah E.K. Smith.