“What if the risk takers hadn’t died?” asks Canadian artist AA Bronson about the 80s AIDS crisis that essentially wiped out a generation of courageous queer artists, “they were the wild ones”. It’s an epidemic that Bronson’s General Idea, operational for nearly three decades, became known for interrogating, until co-members Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal were themselves claimed by the virus in 1994. The three-person collective was perhaps most famous for their Imagevirus series, with Robert Indiana’s iconic Pop Art LOVE logo at its core, ‘AIDS’ replacing the ‘love’ and its image spreading, reproducing and infecting gallery spaces and urban areas in a form that mutated across painting, print, sculpture, video and ‘other’.
Speaking with The Showroom director Emily Pethick at London’s Maureen Paley for the opening of his HEXENMEISTER exhibition, running April 18 to May 23, the veteran artist is flanked by early General Idea works while sharing his ideas on “gay trauma”, healing, community and ritual. It’s something he’s devoted his life to, exploring everything from palmistry to taoism, and experimenting with alternative ways of living in his early days founding a commune and underground newspaper with eight other University dropouts and sharing his life and output with Partz and Zontal for 25 years before their deaths.
Bronson has spent his life constructing the concept of ‘queer’, across the gay communities of 80s New York, a history of “all-male societies” – explorers, trappers, loggers, Quebecois hotel industry workers – in the Canadian Rockies, the freed slaves of 18th century New Orleans and beyond. His invocation of ‘Queer Spirits’ applies to both the dead and the living as what he calls his “cabin of curiosities”, upstairs from the lower “white cube” of General Idea works, presents the range and complexity of queer identities outside of the “gay mainstream”. It’s a selection of zines collected over a few decades, an oppositional force in “this era of sameness” that’s backed by Yeonjune Jung’s “What a Beautiful World!” (2014) wallpaper with its delicate depictions of the 1999 Soho bombing and a gay couple in Iran being lynched on London’s Hampstead Heath, among images of exotic birds.
“Jasper Johns was definitely not announcing that he was gay,” Bronson says about the 17 years of activity General Idea carried out before “Queer Theory” became a Uni course and critics could talk about the un-subtle eroticism of neon poodle group sex in ‘Mondo Cane Kama Sutra (9 figures) #2’ (1984). That is, as something other than a “metaphor for collaboration”.
History, it seems, is central to the artist’s work, remembering and memorialising a past that still has its effect on the present as well as the future. That’s not only evident in Bronson’s light-hearted assertion that his role as shaman is to undo the wrongs of a christian missionary grandfather, but in understanding the contemporary moment of LGBT normativity as something that precipitated with the loss of those so-called ‘risk-takers’ of the 80s. “My generation pretty much invented the infrastructure of gay organisations”, he says of the comparatively conservative role models left behind following the great loss of the AIDS crisis, “But I think things are changing extremely quickly, so there is some hope”. **
Exhibition photos, top right and you can watch the conversation in full here.