Local activist and artist Will Munro is remembered in a meaningful exhibition of his work at the Art Gallery of York University.
Saturday was Toronto activist and artist Will Munro’s birthday. Munro, who died of a brain tumour in May of 2010, would have been 37.
His Vaseline/Vazaleen parties (they ran from 2000 to 2006, first at the El Mocambo and later at Lee’s Palace) were legendary. He was also an artist, and his work often featured fabric reclaimed from found underwear. Also, along with Lynn MacNeil, he revived the Beaver Cafe on West Queen West. Now, the Art Gallery of York University is hosting a posthumous exhibition of his work, entitled History, Glamour, Magic, which opened in January and runs until March 11.
The first section of the exhibition focuses mostly on Munro’s work with found men’s briefs. He started working in the medium while still a student at OCA.
Munro’s work defies expectations by turning briefs from purely functional objects into flags in the air—each different, each with its place in the group. Most designers of mens’ apparel still can’t match the joy and energy of Munro’s custom skivvies. Munro would also take briefs apart and turn them into murals and other expected things. He would, for example, play with the concept of “support” by using underwear as fabric for a stretcher.
After Munro’s death, many retrospectives on his life mentioned his deep knowledge of queer history and theory. That side of his persona seems to have informed the installation in the second room—created in partnership with fashion design Jeremy Laing—where sexuality is presented through a funhouse-like lens.
On the wall hang two jester-like suits with protruding phallic cones and doughnut-like orifices. The centre of the room hosts a peach-toned tent adorned with lace. Inside the tent is a den filled with more phalli and orifices. All of this seems to be a comment on the sometimes-absurd tunnel-vision of indiscriminate sex, encapsulated in the colloquial phrase “a hole, is a hole, is a hole.”
At the same time, with the figures stripped of their gender and made uncomfortably grotesque, there’s a dream-like quality to the room. In such a topsy-turvy environment, where the iconography is neither homosexual nor heterosexual, the viewer is made to look at sex frankly.
In his early 30s, Munro was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer, and it was this disease that ultimately ended his life. He continued to work after his diagnosis, and the AGYU devotes an entire room to materials from his final show, Inside The Solar Temple of the Cosmic Leather Daddy. The palette is mostly black, and the imagery is heavy on Egyptian symbols associated with flight. A sex sling evokes rest, comfort, and surrender. Winged leather daddies superimposed on mirrors break up reflections. While the cleverness of Munro’s work remains evident, there’s a weariness that is shocking when juxtaposed with the exuberance found in the other rooms.
Throughout his life, Munro was able to transition comfortably between many roles—artist, party promoter, restaurateur—and this is why he had such an impact on Toronto: he brought about change by bringing together different subcultures and making them feel welcome in their own city. He challenged the status quo, not by shutting it out—a favourite tactic of the counterculture—but by promoting inclusivity.
With his mix of fearlessness and generosity, Munro countered the perception of Toronto as a passive-aggressive and chilly place. His legacy will last for a long time yet, but there’s a sense that the city that had embraced and loved him is still coming to terms with having lost him, so unexpectedly and entirely too soon. History, Glamour, Magic acts as a meaningful part of the mourning process.
All photos by Jaime Woo/Torontoist.