Sculptures reveal shaping of masculinity

Belmore’s ‘Mister Luna’ a must-see in small but powerful exhibit

Joseph Fafard’s sculpture “The Veteran” expresses both sadness and wisdom.
Joseph Fafard’s sculpture “The Veteran” expresses both sadness and wisdom.
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From right to left, Alex Wyse’s phallic “Pleasant Industry” and Rebecca Belmore’s haunting “Mister Luna.”
From right to left, Alex Wyse’s phallic “Pleasant Industry” and Rebecca Belmore’s haunting “Mister Luna.”
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Fine Art Review: Mister Man @ Agnes Etherington Art Centre until Apr. 8

Mister Man is the-little-engine-that-could of art exhibitions. Though small—Mister Man includes only five pieces of art—the little engine was powerful, and so is the art in this exhibit. Curated by Michelle Veitch, an art history PhD candidate, the exhibition features contemporary Canadian sculptural representations of male identity from Agnes Etherington Art Centre’s permanent collection.

“The Veteran,” a sculpture of an elderly man from artist Joseph Fafard’s community, features a war veteran wearing striped pyjamas and a weathered fedora. The man sits in his wheelchair beside a bedside hospital table with a jug on it, a cup in his left hand, his right sleeve sadly empty. His bare feet and his expressive face contain remarkable detail and evoke sadness and frailty, but Fafard is somehow able to express an underlying worldly knowledge in the old man’s eyes. The open mouth seems to be getting ready to form a word, and brings to mind my 98-year-old neighbour who is slow to say hello, but always manages to greet his neighbours. There’s a sense that what the subject of the sculpture is about to say will be profound.

Of course, you couldn’t have an exhibition focusing on masculinity without a phallic symbol or two. Alex Wyse’s “Pleasant Industry” is, simply put, an homage to male sexual desire. This modern take on the long standing tradition of phallic imagery is most interesting for its appropriation of the late 19th century pointillist style—using dots of complimentary colours together to create depth, shadow and highlights in idyllic scenes of leisure. Wyse combines this idyllic imagery with the phallus, which sits at the apex of an approximately three-and-a-half foot architectural frame. You get the picture.

Rebecca Belmore’s “Mister Luna” also pays homage, but she pays it to a particular individual: performance artist James Luna, a member of the Luiseño Indians at the La Jolla Reservation in North County, Calif. Belmore, an Anishinabekwe artist whose work explores Aboriginal identity, combined bright-yellow-painted leather shoes surrounded by a ring of vanity lights, with more vanity lights arranged in a semicircle below. Leaving the electrical cords hanging down to pool on the ground, adorned by four feathers, the piece has a haunting quality.

“Mister Luna” is a must-see, but I’ll admit there is an even more interesting piece in the exhibition.

“Putti” by General Idea—an artist collective of AA Bronson (Michael Tims), Felix Partz (Ronald Gabe), and Jorge Zontal (Slobodan Saia-Levy) who lived and worked together in Toronto for 25 years—features a seal-shaped soap figurine and a printed pulpboard displaying General Idea’s signature. The piece, like much of General Idea’s work, deals with young male identity, as well as the shifting identity of the artists themselves as AIDS activists, victims and media stars.

General Idea are most famous for their “AIDS” sculpture, which was inspired by Robert Indiana’s 1970 “Love” sculpture. The six-foot lacquered metal sculpture, in which the letters of AIDS are compressed and stacked two-by-two in a perfect square, is currently on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (until Oct. 1).

“Putti” may not seem like much—it’s just soap after all–but the piece, which was completed in 1993, is representative of a tumultuous moment in the careers and lives of these activist artists. General Idea came to a tragic and premature end a year later. On Feb. 3, 1994, Zontal died of AIDS, and four months later, on June 5, Partz also died of the syndrome. AA Bronson continues to work as an artist in Toronto.

Mister Man’s examination of masculine identity from numerous artistic perspectives is a compelling exhibition. It’s clear that Veitch carefully thought out and staged all pieces with the viewer in mind.

My only complaint: I want more.

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Michelle Veitch will be giving a talk about Mister Man at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre this Thursday at 12:15 p.m. as part of the Art Centre’s “Art Matters” series.

Admission is free.

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