Slippery queers

Good show, strange premise

One of the interesting things about the idea of queerness is that it often brings up more questions than it answers. As language and meaning evolve, the word queer grows distant from the concept it refers to. Sometimes the words gay and queer seem interchangeable. For example, Sinbad In The Rented World, the latest exhibition at the Art Gallery Of York University, claims that it is “devoted to exploring the queer aesthetic in Toronto art,” but really comes off as a gay male show.

The show is spawned from filmmaker Jack Smith’s perpetual question, “Could art ever be useful?” Today the question seems rhetorical. If art were not useful, we wouldn’t bother to keep making it. Gallery director Philip Monk twists Smith’s question and asks the participating artists to ponder queer art’s social function.

Last I checked, queer was a rather inclusive idea, and there are lots of queer women and trans folks making art in Toronto. As such, Sinbad does not explore the queer aesthetic as it claims, but rather explores one person’s ideas on queer aesthetics. After all, is there really a specific visual style that makes art queer? Can an artist who maintains a strictly gay identity be queer? Can a straight woman?

To those in the know, the artists of Sinbad are a diverse group of people. To those not, this show will appear as another collection of work by gay men. Rather than asserting claims of queerness, perhaps this show could have promised to promote the work of hip young homos. It would have done a fine job in the process.

Slippery curatorial claims aside, this show has some really nice work in it. Upon entering the gallery one is greeted with Jeremy Laing and Will Munro’s Virginia Puff Paint, a laced and bedazzling orifice drapery complete with a performance documentation video. Watching Laing and Munro perform is like watching a lacy, supernatural peep show addressing our inability to understand sexuality – and celebrating it at the same time.

Joel Gibb’s work consists of lovely felt banners and hand painted album covers from his band The Hidden Cameras. Gibb also presents the hypnotic “Golden Streams” video with, you guessed it, golden streams aplenty. His installation has a jubilant, church-revival feel to it. The work maintains a sense of simplicity while still getting its point across.

The Ensemble Of Tops ‘N’ Bottoms (Karen Azoulay and Gibb) present photographs from their ongoing dress-up party project. They read as a DIY-primer on unconventional ways of wearing clothes.

Tucked away in a tiny corner of the gallery lies Scott Treleaven’s work. A new issue of his old zine The Salivation Army is free for the taking. The zine is a collection of work old and new, and is easily worth the bus fare (though, as a contributor I’m biased). Also playing is Treleaven’s Salivation Army video, a piece that never seems to lose its edge despite having been screened several times in Toronto. His work appears slightly awkward testing gallery waters. The teeth and claws of the revolutionary don’t quite know what to make of pristine white walls.


Much like every group exhibit, Sinbad has hits and misses. Andrew Harwood’s Self-Portrait consists of a pile of sequins that is supposed to be equal to his weight. It’s sort of a nice idea, but the piece winds up dwarfed by the huge gallery space. When I look at it I can’t help but think, “They spent how much on this piece?”

One of the largest walls in the gallery is covered with Portuguese scrawlings found by Ian Phillips. The indecipherable words on craft paper ask questions about authorship, aesthetics and value. Phillips can’t claim authorship for the work, it arguably doesn’t have a sense of aesthetics, and well, what’s the point, really? Viewers familiar with Phillips’ impressive books will ultimately leave this piece scratching their heads.

Sinbad brings together a nice collection of work. Unfortunately, I suspect viewers who don’t already have an entry point will be left confused. The printed material regarding the work is scant and obtuse. However, don’t be distracted by the convoluted premise, and hop on the bus to see what’s going on in the land of academia.

* Sinbad In The Rented World continues at the Art Gallery Of York University (4700 Keele St) until Sun, Mar 28; call (416) 736-5169.

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