Focus on gender, identity and sexuality at SAW and Ottawa Art galleries

Laura Taler, HEX: Begin Again, 2019, film still, courtesy of the artist. Ottawa Art Gallery

During this federal election campaign, as  undercurrents of intolerance waft by like the stench of trash left outside the window, two exhibitions downtown seem appropriately timed.

The exhibitions are in the side-by-side institutions that are the Ottawa Art Gallery and SAW Gallery, and between them they consider gender, identity and sexuality across most of the past century and around the world.

The SAW exhibition, titled Sex Life: Homoeroticism in Drawing, is, as the title may imply, the more explicit. Some works are surely the most sexually explicit art seen on the walls of a public gallery in Ottawa since Jeff Koons’ massive porn-as-art pieces in Pop Life: Art in a Material World at the National Gallery in 2010.

Unlike that NGC show, the issue at SAW is not directly materialism or the influence of pop culture in art (though traces of both themes can be found), rather it’s to consider “sexual intimacy and lusty pleasures with reimagined formulations of homoeroticism through a variety of lenses, offering an expanded view of queer life and culture,” as curator Jason St-Laurent writes in the exhibition notes.

Installation view of Sex Life : Homoeroticism in Drawing at SAW Gallery. Photo by Justin Wonnacott, SAW Gallery

Considering that drawing is the singular focus of the exhibition, the range of styles gathered by St-Laurent is impressive. The work spans comic books to hyper-realism, and the hardcore to the ha-ha funny.

There are wonderful comics by Montreal’s Diane Obomsawin and Toronto’s G.B. Jones, but those most likely to be recognized locally are from Ottawa’s Dave Cooper. Cooper, also known for his kids’ animated TV shows Pig Goat Banana Cricket (Nickelodeon) and The Bagel and Becky Show (Teletoon), here has a large, vertical panel that shows a teeming, orgiastic bacchanal of creatures that may be human, or maybe not.

The tumult of Cooper’s unbridled sex made me think of the paintings of Toronto’s Kent Monkman, and those campy, history-turning scenes where Indigenous North Americans (and sometimes bears) have their sexual way with hapless Mounties and other settlers. The Monkman work in this exhibition is not what I expected; there is energetic sex being had on the panel, but it’s obscured as if by netting or hatching. At first I didn’t see the human forms at all, and it reminded me of those infuriating “magic eye” posters, which led me to think about what we see, and what we choose to see, and how we choose to see it.

The works that most boldly “dare to venture into areas of uncomfortableness,” as St-Laurent writes, are those of Panos Balomenos, who lives in Athens and Helsinki. Balomenos’ drawings include close-ups of men having group sex, and nothing is left to the imagination.

One drawing shows what I assume to be an orthodox priest who’s naked but for his clerical headgear, and masturbating to the point of eruption. I didn’t see the image as necessarily homo-erotic, as I looked at it as a straight man, and I don’t know which fantasies have pushed the priest to his impressive state of tumescence. By the time I reached the end of the exhibition I came close to seeing all of the art not as homo- or hetero-erotic, but as just erotic.

Whether that’ll be the experience of other viewers, I don’t know. I do believe that we all struggle to see — or we should try to struggle to see — beyond our own perspectives and the biases built within. When I manage to almost do so, however briefly, I find it quite freeing.

Sex Life: Homoeroticism in Drawing (which opened some time ago while I was lolling about my cottage pretending to be productive) has been extended to Oct. 26.

Cara Tierney, We Demand Dreams, 2019, white oak, tung oil, courtesy of the artist. Ottawa Art Gallery

Next door at the Ottawa Art Gallery is the exhibition Facing Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. I’m betting the majority of gallery-goers don’t know Cahun and Moore, so to most the title says nothing about what lies within. That’s unfortunate, as curator Michelle Gewurtz has gathered influential works by the titular couple, and by artists of today to consider the work and “also play with language, photographs, performance, film, costume and textile to trouble gender norms.”

Cahun and Moore (born Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, respectively) fled Paris in the late 1930s, as anti-Semitism rose in Europe, to their summer home on the island of Jersey in the United Kingdom — an unfortunate choice, as German forces would soon occupy the island. There the couple artfully distributed what amounted to propaganda, at tremendous personal risk. They were arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 and sentenced to death, but survived in prison until Allied forces liberated the island a year later.

Their work was largely forgotten until rediscovered and reconsidered in the 1980s. There had been no exhibitions of their work in their lifetimes, and the OAG exhibition is “one of the first. . . to credit both artists in the production of these remarkable images.”

Gewurtz writes, “They are best known today for their striking collaborative portraits of Claude Cahun, images which complicate our understanding of femininity, masculinity, and in fact challenge binary ways of thinking.”

Local contributors to the exhibition include Cara Tierney and Laura Taler. Visitors first see Tierney’s wall of words, written in cursive script and carved from wood, “We demand dreams, claws out or velvet paws,” an aphorism written by Cahun that effectively sets a tone of determination for the exhibition.

Taler’s video shows a seance with six versions of herself, in which the Talers, inspired by Cahun, Moore and others, explore “new ways of thinking about beauty, gender and sexuality” and “how identity is formed by taking up, modifying or rejecting roles prevalent in culture at large.”

The restrained black-and-white video and low-key air of Taler’s seance effectively contrasts with the bouquet of hand-tinted-like colours in the exhibition’s other video, Garden Self-Portraits After Claude Cahun, by London, England’s Sarah Pucill. Pucill restages Cahun-Moore photographs and excerpts both Cahun’s uncompleted memoir and the couple’s anti-Nazi propaganda.

There are photographs by Montreal-based Danya Danger and South Africa’s Zanele Muholi. Danger’s BSDM-themed portraits force the viewer to make assumptions about the gender and identity of the masked models, and that brings thoughts about . . . well, how we make assumptions about gender and identity. Muholi’s self-portraits record where in the world the artist has encountered transphobia and racism, including one as the notorious Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete of Dutch Christmas folklore.

Most unusual, amongst this collection of images and text, is Alberta artist Mark Clintberg’s hand-woven fabric that recreates the garment worn by Cahun what is the exhibition’s signature photograph. Clintberg’s fabric is long and fringed and filled with white and black and teal squares, and it made me think of how we’re all equal parts of this checkerboard of humanity.

A simplistic thought by me, perhaps, but we’re hardwired to make assumptions about who others are, and to not ask ourselves why.

Facing Cahun and More continues to Feb. 9.

Share Post
Written by

Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.