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Will Munro: Ecstatic Legacies

I did not know artist/DJ/promoter/activist Will Munro personally. As a gay Torontonian of a certain age and taste (I moved to the city in 2001) I was, however, inevitably affected by what he did. I regularly attended his club nights Vazaleen and Peroxide. Vazaleen exposed me to a type of gay subculture—pluralist, punk, political—that I desperately wanted to see in Canada (and, admittedly, was too shy to engage with unreservedly at the time). Peroxide, a smaller affair that revelled in the then–au courant genre of electroclash, taught me of the affinities between dance and rock music—ones that seem obvious now, but were much less so then.

The last time I saw Munro was in March 2010, at a talk given by Ryan Trecartin at the Drake Hotel. What was to be the final Munro art show of his lifetime, “Inside the Solar Temple of the Cosmic Leather Daddy,” was still open at Paul Petro Contemporary Art down the street. (That street, Queen West, had been revitalized in part due to Munro’s efforts with the restaurant/club he co-owned, the Beaver.) I remember thinking that, whatever the status of his health—Munro had been diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008, and rumour had it things weren’t going so well—it seemed as if he was making a resolute move into the art world.

Munro died a few months after that talk, and an outpouring of tributes followed. A cursory exhibition opened quickly (July 31) at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s small Toronto Now space. At the opening, it was announced that a major retrospective was being planned for the Art Gallery of York University for some time in the near future. The generosity and benevolence surrounding such commemorations was overwhelming, but outside his close circle of friends, there were murmurings: Was Munro’s achievement as an artist on par with his innovations as a promoter and activist? Were these exhibitions mere eulogies, or deserved steps towards ensuring his legacy as an important creator?

Now that the AGYU retrospective has opened, it is abundantly apparent that Munro was, in fact, a prolifically talented craftsperson and conceptualist. Walking through the show on a packed opening night, I tried to see the show without partisan eyes, which is not to say that I attempted to divorce the work from its community context (that would be impossible), but that I thought it worthwhile to try to adopt the perspective of a non-Torontonian, perhaps of one who hadn’t heard of Munro at all before seeing the work. Even in this imagined position, I was impressed. Two acclaimed, recent art-world exhibitions sprung to mind as comparable experiences: Fotomuseum Winterthur’s exhibition of the work of Mark Morrisroe, which later travelled to New York’s Artists Space, and the Musée d’art Moderne la Ville de Paris’ “Haute Culture: General Idea,” which of course travelled to the Art Gallery of Ontario last year.

The subtitle of the Munro show, “History, Glamour, Magic,” provides a preliminary, essential link. Both Morrisroe—foremost a photographer, but also a performer and filmmaker, who died in 1989 of complications due to AIDS—as well as General Idea made little distinction between the living out of their respective practices and the fantasy worlds they so actively and extravagantly cultivated. This convergence is fundamental to queer aesthetics, but it is exceptional with these artists: every piece of ephemera—a gig poster, a newspaper article—seems designed (with alternating cunning and enthusiasm) to fuel the artist’s legend. Objects are created with the express purpose of functioning as documents, as relics. They are indeed charged—always, already—with history, glamour and magic.

In Munro’s case, this desire seems to stem from his rabid interest in fan culture, a highly religious thing. Fans, like other devotees, make offerings and build shrines; Munro hosted ceremonies in the form of his club nights, to which he invited heroes like Nina Hagen. His objects—even as they now sit, displayed in ordered abundance in the AGYU’s high-ceilinged space—radiate this passion through handiwork. Munro flourished within the DIY ethos. Anything around could be used to make work, such as the photocopies, spray paint and tape that constitute his Klaus Nomi Vest. But it was men’s underwear that proved to be his medium of choice. Fan art can certainly be art in its own right, but Munro’s fixation with underwear lends his work a remarkably intelligent and exuberant air. The designer underwear he made, cleverly displayed at the AGYU both on vintage Harvey Woods and Watson’s mannequins and on suspended clotheslines, takes the superhero branding of Underoos into the realms of fetish culture and queerpunk. A room entitled “Boys Do First Aid,” a collection of early work that deconstructs Boy Scout iconography, proves that Munro was interested in panelled briefs—which he also tore apart and reconstituted, in a sort of stitch-work decoupage—for their naughty connotations as well as for their textures and lines. Comparisons with artist Brian Jungen’s reworking of sports gear to form First Nations totems and masks would not be out of order.

The clotheslines suspended from AGYU’s ceiling also make it clear, especially after “Boys Do First Aid,” that Munro’s underwear, in concert with his tapestries, is in the tradition of heraldry. Enter General Idea, the Toronto-based artist group that was not only part of Munro’s pantheon of queer idols (a highly determined group which, as a recurring silkscreen pattern in the show confirms, included Leigh Bowery, Klaus Nomi, Andy Warhol and the Germs’ Darby Crash), but also an essential forebear to the arc of his career. One sees Toronto through Munro’s work as one sees it through General Idea’s: not as an actuality, but as a sensibility. General Idea’s mandate to be “famous, glamorous artists,” as well as to live and breathe its practice, was Munro’s, too. Both Munro and General Idea seem to act out that oh-so-Canadian of questions, posed ironically by another Munro, Alice: “Who do you think you are?” Their mutual answer, thick with queer bravado, seems to be, “We are someone, and we are going to make something.”

The Pavilion of Virginia Puff-Paint, which Munro co-created with friend and fashion designer Jeremy Laing, is the arguable summit of the artist’s tribute to General Idea. An installation as well as a performance—and thus present here as a set and costumes, accompanied by a video—it titularly references General Idea’s bizarre, ongoing Miss General Idea Pavilion. As opposed to the GI work (the artists famously predicted that their non-existent pavilion would burn down in 1984), Munro and Laing’s pavilion is soft, enveloping, otherworldly—a decadent, extraterrestrial harem. In the recorded performance, Laing and Munro, unrecognizable in head-to-toe costumes, simulate sex using numerous fabric orifices and phalluses, some of which ejaculate glitter. The piece is hilarious. It’s also outrageously clever and creative, a skewering of the absurd de Sadean excesses of contemporary pornography, and a companion to GI’s poodles, which, in neon paintings, have threesomes that serve as a metaphor for collaboration. Curiously neutered and cute, and thus highly conceptualized, both are versions of queerness that, somehow, seem as if they could only have emerged from Canada.

“Inside the Solar Temple of the Cosmic Leather Daddy” is recreated at the AGYU in full, and in the context of Virginia Puff-Paint, which it spatially follows, and as a last work, it is absolutely death-haunted, its centrepiece an S/M sex sling surrounded by inherently morbid Egyptian symbology. This is co-curators Emelie Chhangur and Philip Monk’s valley of the shadow of death, which leads to the final, Elysium-like “Lezbro room,” an expression of Munro’s belief in integrated queer communities, and defined by artist Allyson Mitchell’s tremendous afghan fort made especially for this retrospective, An Emotional Landing Maxi-Pad and Chill-Out Space.

At the opening, well over a year after Munro’s death, Mitchell’s installation still functioned as a wake of sorts. Amazed by the breadth of creative work on display—this review has only touched on it; there are hundreds of pieces, a remarkable achievement for an artist who passed away at 35—I often forgot this was even a possibility. Spotting a Kleenex box on the ground of Mitchell’s installation, amid adults and children cuddling and talking with gusto and laughter, I asked a friend if it were a cheeky reference to masturbation. “No!” he said, somewhat aghast. “It’s for crying.” I couldn’t help but think that Munro, even though I didn’t know him, would’ve liked my interpretation better. Munro’s work is about nothing so much as life and inspiration, in their purest forms. His message—that your idols can influence you to make art about them, and thus can make you an artist in turn—represents a queer lineage, but it is not exclusive by any means. As this exhibition proclaims, Will Munro has succeeded; and by virtue of this success, he now calls others down the same, enchanted path.

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