Interview: Paul Petro on Becoming the Legacy-Building, “Bent Identity Politics” Gallerist of Toronto

Will Munro, "untitled (polaroids)," 2003. Collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Courtesy the Estate of Will Munro and Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

The spiritual iconographies of Paul Petro’s roster are many. Robert Flack’s seven chakras series from the 1990s; Stephen Andrews’s heaven painting, and The Apostles; the worshipful, if deviant last exhibition of Will Munro, Inside the Solar Temple of the Cosmic Leather Daddy; even FASTWÜRMS’s “Witch-positive sensibility” carries tones of Petro’s particular brand, an irreverence and sincerity fluttering at the margins of its intent commentaries on queerness, myth, mortality, and desire. These artists, collected under Petro’s storied Queen Street canopy, approach the spiritual without risking the earnestness of religious speculation we find anathema to contemporary art. They are mercurial, perverse, elusive, profane, and winking.

It felt appropriate that I met with Petro on the morning after a summer storm, his back to me as he looked out over the verdant garden behind his gallery, where a large tree had fallen in the night. It had been slowly uprooted, coming to rest on, and bruising, the rooftop of a neighboring home. Petro was more fascinated than concerned, and immediately drew lines to art. “I’m thinking about acts of God – and this,” he said, gesturing to a large, fabled sculpture sitting at the base of his felled tree. “It’s called A Peaceable Kingdom, Sow and Serpent, by Tom Dean. I have to tell Tom about this,” he said, bemused, turning his attention to making a cold coffee. The work features a serpent wrapping itself around a prostrate pig, though “peaceably,” as though in an embrace. Sitting beneath that sundered tree, the pair carry something of Petro’s gallery, where allegories and other big ideas go approached through a second entrance, and where, in many of his artists, one feels an aura of the fated, the lucky, the doomed and the destined.

The bending of time is not accessible to us, except by revelation. We can only know by divining.
When you talk about God, you don’t know what you’re talking about. The singularity will not be accessible to us.

– Tom Dean, 2013

We spent the next hour discussing that unique collection of players, especially as they’ve come to pattern a series of summer exhibitions that mark Petro’s year. These group shows work harder than the typical “fan-‘em-out” approach of so many galleries who are seeking a break from intent reflection and promotion. They form an anchor for Petro’s ethos and aesthetic, a moment for curatorial lyricism and apriorism.

Following group shows that variously thread, with shots of color, his gallery’s twenty-four-year history, Petro’s Revelations (2013) was the first of a recent series, featuring a collection of queer men whose sexuality merges with the spiritual. Standing Ground followed, in 2014, striking up a dance between two deceased artists, Will Munro and Robert Flack, whose lives, deaths, and art formed mirrors, though they worked generations apart. And now, Standing Ground II, Chance and Variation, where, again, a legacy is named in Wendy Coburn, and a life’s work – cut too short by suicide – is opened like a palm leaf, for others – including Stephen Andrews, Will Munro, and Paul P. – to drop upon it like beads of dew.

Stephen Andrews,"Heaven," 2012.

Stephen Andrews, “Heaven,” 2012. Collection of the AGO. Courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

Take me back to the origins of the gallery. What was the impetus for starting out?

I grew up in Toronto and studied English Lit at Glendon College. Studying in classes of four to twenty with profs like Michael Ondaatje, bands like The Government playing at the college. A work-hard, play-hard atmosphere. I felt very connected to Queen Street from that point on. Then came the zeitgeist years – Chromaliving, Monumenta, The New City of Sculpture, all these things were happening.

So, when you began, what were you looking to respond to, to add or change?

When I finished my degree in ’81, I took a loft at Bathurst and Richmond. I was being led to different culture points, like Trinity Square Video, or the Artculture Resource Centre. I became a founding member of InterAccess, joined the electronic arts committee at A Space and found myself in advisory discussions with arts councils on funding new media. I was primarily cutting my teeth on video work, and as a practicing artist at that time, I was applying for arts council grants and producing digital video, computer-generated image and text sequences, exhibiting and curating. Toronto was a globally creative hub in new media, Telidon in particular, and I was actively monitoring, visiting, discussing, and beginning to program, understanding that artists, with these advancing technological structures – which is how we saw it at that time, that artists function as an immunity system.

That’s a nice way of putting it.

That comes out of McLuhan, in a way. I was involved with a McLuhan-based think tank at the University of Toronto at the time, and talking with artists like Norman White and Doug Back. And that became part of my thinking with respect to how I was dealing with the technological structure in my own work, and thinking about the social and psychological consequences of that, even before it started inviting into play issues surrounding patriarchy, power, and authority. Then, ultimately, as we moved through the eighties, and identity politics, feminism, the gay identity politic, my impulse became to open up these conversations and see where my sensibility led me, and how it revealed itself along the way. It’s all about being able to hear the penny when it drops; and that was happening all the time, they were raining down on you.

When I was hired in August ’86 at Evelyn Aimis Fine Art in Yorkville, the director said “I’d like you to spend the first year just listening.” The first exhibition I worked on was Warhol, and a few months later Gerhard Richter. I watched the reporting on art auctions intensify in the Globe’s business section, in the mid-eighties. All of a sudden the action in the auction rooms opened up. It became a retailing operation. I was a fly on the wall and learned a lot, including about what I didn’t want to do.

Andrew Harwood, "Expo Bras," 2000. Courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

Andrew Harwood, “Expo Bras,” 2000. Courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

What were some of the things you knew you didn’t want to emulate in your own gallery?

I knew it needed to come from within, with a certain conviction. At that moment I was galvanized in this belief that making decisions that were market-driven or commercial would move me away, one programming choice at a time. I wasn’t interested in complacency or the market-as-motivator in myself, or in the artists. So it was a protracted period of clarification in my relationship to the market, what language I would use to describe how I would enact things in art, and why an artwork would migrate onto one wall rather than another. The fundamentals fell into place for me.

An alternate sense of accomplishment and restlessness propels me. I think I need to live to 150 to see certain things through, given how slow institutional time can operate! I needed the agility to figure out and expedite ideas as they came to me, and never considered getting institutionalized. When I pondered my next move after the Evelyn Aimis gallery, a bridge presented itself to me in 100 Yonge, where I was offered a 2,000 square-foot retail space, unrented, unrenovated, fronted by a fantastic vitrine 49-feet long, five-feet deep, a curtain wall of glass. Fifteen-foot ceilings, lights, all the direct public interface you could hope for. I would fax the invitations. I was right across the street from where the GI [General Idea] studio used to be. It was a three-and-a-half-year curatorial incubator for me. It laid a lot of seeds for my curatorial path.

Following that, how mindful were you being in moulding a commercial gallery known for its representation of queer and feminist artists?

I’m not so conscious of that, I don’t think of the gallery that way. We are content-driven, and broker ideas that are mindful of the margins. And sometimes that necessitates stepping in or recognizing institutional deficiencies and putting that work on public record which might otherwise slip through the cracks. There are messages going out, and definitions coming in based on people’s perceptions and how they are ruled by them. Social and political relevancies often take the form of, in the words of FASTWÜRMS, “bent identity politics,” and there is always a level of social exchange.

Wendy Coburn, "UHAUL Suite," 2012. Courtesy the Estate of Wendy Coburn and Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

Wendy Coburn, “UHAUL Suite,” 2012. Courtesy the Estate of Wendy Coburn and Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

When so many galleries produce summer group exhibitions without a ton of attention to curatorial comment, you’re producing shows that anchor your year. It’s all here, in looking at the mainstays of what you do – political art, a continuing focus on identity politics, feminist work, video, and representing several estates. How did you begin asserting these powerful exhibitions?

More and more I find the best form of advocacy is through my curatorial decisions. Hence, over twenty thematic group exhibitions with deep, issue-driven baselines that translate into the tabling of a growing list of imperatives, as I see them. That’s why even a summer group exhibition is approached as an opportunity to place emphasis on certain things. In the case of the current group exhibition, Standing Ground II, Chance and Variation, we are contextualizing the work of Wendy Coburn, both in relation to Robert Flack and Will Munro, and with a larger field of artists. What with all the work that has to be done in a lifetime, it makes no sense to squander a programming opportunity on something light when you can demonstrate, in this case, the powerful ideas that Wendy embraced through her own activism and as an educator and human rights advocate and relate that work to, say, Will Munro.

Will Munro at Paul Petro Contemporary Art, March 21, 2010. Photo by Luis Jacob.

Will Munro at Paul Petro Contemporary Art, March 21, 2010. Photo by Luis Jacob.

The exhibition Standing Ground (2014) preceded the current exhibition and looked closely at the practices of Robert Flack and Will Munro. Both living to the age of 35, one dying of AIDS in 1993, and the other of a brain tumor in 2010. Two important queer histories. And by queer I mean artists who mined the margins and celebrated sexuality in all its forms with a mindfulness towards diversity and inclusivity – and by that we are talking about race and gender as well as sexuality, before those concepts were taken up and mainstreamed. That exhibition was a tipping point for an acquisition of Will’s work, this year, by the National Gallery of Canada [NGC]. That was a five-year conversation. And now we are looking at the NGC and the AGO on behalf of Wendy, and to the AGO on behalf of Will and Robert, and ask the questions about legacies that aren’t reflected in the permanent collections while at the same time being so celebrated by the community.



– Will Munro, 2010

What are the precedents for these powerful group shows, where did they come out of?

Well, I’m looking at 2013 and the chronology of group shows and concise surveys and the arc of programming or curatorial sequencing that occurred in that year and am registering the connections between Revelations and the Tom Dean survey exhibition, Mercy, and also between the Marlene Creates survey and the group exhibition History Becomes You. I think these links are part of the prelude before the Standing Ground exhibitions, too. My sense is that if I were to look into 2012 and 2011 and then before that we’ll find steps that have contributed to where we are now, as well. I’m now reminded of the group exhibition Real Man in 2000 and Legion in 2002.

Crossing Natures in 2011 was a group exhibition that defined a particular feminist lineage in contemporary Canadian art, descending from Joyce Wieland through Janet Morton to Melanie Rocan. Themes in this exhibition originated in a two-person exhibition with Sheila Butler and Suzy Lake in 1996 in my earliest exhibition space, 100 Yonge, where representing Suzy Lake for an eighteen-year period (until 2010-11) contributed to my thinking, particularly in relation to the gay identity politic of the 1980s and its roots in feminism.

My working relationship with Stephen Andrews grew out of this territory (beginning with Excerpts From Sonnets in 1999) and that reminds me of Sarah Milroy’s review in 2000 of the Likeness exhibition at the UBC Art Gallery and Windsor Art Gallery, curated by Anette Hurtig and focusing on a ten-year survey of Stephen’s portrait-based work. Milroy lifted his practice out of the gay identity ghetto and emphasized how we all have a stake in the themes that Stephen’s work of the time addressed: memory, loss, the grieving process, the corporeal, mortality.

What are the advantages or disadvantages of working with an estate rather than a living artist – most recently Wendy Coburn?

My estate work began with Robert Flack because he is an important artist who has not been adequately recognized within Canada. With Will Munro, I had been collecting his work for a few years before he began showing with us in 2003, so the commitment was already there. When he passed in 2010, the need for preserving his legacy became an essential curatorial responsibility that we have reflected in several curatorial decisions in the intervening years. I stepped in to help with Wendy Coburn’s estate because she was a friend and I respected her mission as an artist, educator, and activist. And I believe we have the right context for appreciating the work. All of this contributed to the decision to make the current group exhibition, to further explore their legacies and to forge connections with other [living] artists. With estates you ask yourself the question, “What would the artist do? Or, what would they want?” With living artists you get to ask them, or suggest.

Too often in Canada the preservation of an artist’s legacy becomes a thing after they are gone. Do people look at work differently when the artist is no longer around?

Standing Ground II not only includes works from these estates but also more historical works by several of the other artists. How do we view those works relative to work from the same period by an artist who is no longer with us? We end up looking through time, and with the advantage of being alive and able to question our mortality in relation to these absences. And it’s when these absences take the form of gaps in important public collections that someone has to speak up. It is breathtaking, and sometimes heartbreaking, to see work from a finite estate collection juxtaposed with new work by another artist and to continue to see the power in the older work and the dialogues they collectively create. In either case, the gallery’s efforts are, simply put, our work. Not much time is spent measuring the amount or value of the energies supplied to these tasks. The idea is not to drop the ball because a dead artist can’t catch it. And if that means catching a ball that escapes the institutions, then we are just doing our job.

Will Munro, "untitled (polaroids)" (detail), 2003.

Will Munro, “untitled (polaroids)” (detail), 2003.

On this note, what’s your perspective on the historicizing moment that we’re experiencing in Toronto, right now, and that will be perpetuated this Fall, in a number of exhibitions and publications?

Well, I would say that I have always had that instinct towards historicizing. Particularly with the upstairs space; I’ve always been quite vigilant about dispensing history lessons, retrieving and recouping recent and further histories that I find have become blind spots in our public realm or that simply nag at my psyche and require attention. I was President of the Board of C Magazine at the time it entered its thirtieth year of publishing, and helped to organize an exhibition in our space to see what thirty years of the magazine looked like. All the covers. All the available back issues encircling the walls and reflecting our history back to us. And print media, no less! The fact that Toronto is coming around to this idea of historicizing itself, for instance with some upcoming Toronto 1970s-80s programming at the AGO, means that some of our work is being done for us. And that helps us redirect, focus, or align certain energies. We’ve always looked back as we look forward.

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