Understanding the ‘General Idea’

by maxmosher

“We never felt we had to create great art to be great artists,” the collective General Idea once said. For Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson, who came together in Toronto in 1969 and were active until 1993, the performance of being artists was the work itself. Their motto “Form follows Fiction” is a simple post-modern rebuttal of Modernism’s “Form follows Function”.

The task of Frederick Bonnet, curator of Haute Culture: General Idea at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the group’s first comprehensive retrospective, is to link the triad’s one-time happensings (such as the tongue-in-cheek Miss General Idea beauty pageant) with their short films, TV special, mail art, architectural plans and traditional art objects.

Their Mondo Cane Sutra series shows three abstract, candy-coloured poodles rescued from resembling a corporate logo only by their pornographic positions. The poodle would become one of General Idea’s main symbols, a subversive twist on the neutered feminine frivolity of campy gay men.

By the mid-1980’s, General Idea’s work centered increasingly on the AIDS epidemic, morphing Robert Indianna’s LOVE poster into the word AIDS. They constructed gigantic pills out of vinyl to show the medicalized nature of suffers’ lives. Most poignantly, a painting of three precocious baby seals, standing in for the three artists, questions which kind of victims we feel more sorry for.

The artists themselves never focused on their own sexualities. Zontal claimed that the only thing worse than being dismissed as gay artists was being called Canadian.

The gallery might have done a better job explaining the more opaque works, but in displaying such a diversity of multi-media, the AGO has done a valuable service in reasserting General Idea’s important place in the development of conceptual art.