New National Gallery show celebrates the “secret visual language … – Ottawa Citizen

Toronto’s Paul P.’s exhibit takes and unconventional approach, uniting contemporary and modern works
Reviews and recommendations are unbiased and products are independently selected. Postmedia may earn an affiliate commission from purchases made through links on this page.
Paul P. : Amor et Mors
National Gallery of Canada
To June 11
More information at
Subscribe now to read the latest news in your city and across Canada.
Subscribe now to read the latest news in your city and across Canada.
Create an account or sign in to continue with your reading experience.
Don’t have an account? Create Account

A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada not only showcases the recently acquired work of Paul P., a contemporary artist from Toronto, but also places it next to historical pieces from the collection that illustrate how queer artists were driven to obfuscate the sexual expression of their art out of fear of persecution.

Thirty works by Paul P. are featured in the show, titled Amor et Mors, along with about 15 rarely seen pieces from the gallery’s collection, including Annibale Carracci’s Study for a Satyr or Faun; James McNeill Whistler’s The Thames; and a 1913 portrait of Robert de Montesquiou by Paul César Helleu.

For the soft-spoken and scholarly artist, who is represented in the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art, among others, the exhibition marks the first time his work has been on view in Canada’s top art institution. It’s also the first sampling of his work to be purchased by the gallery, thanks to the support of patron Diana Billes in 2020.

“It feels extraordinarily good,” the 46-year-old artist said in an interview during a media viewing of the show. “I was not represented in the collection beforehand but now we have 30 works so that feels like great progress. And to have it move into an exhibiting context, it feels fantastic and also very natural at the same time, too.”

Also notable was the gallery’s unconventional approach in matching the artist with a curator who specializes in historical work, not contemporary art. Sonia Del Re, senior curator of prints and drawings, got involved because of her deep knowledge of the gallery’s trove of 30,000 or so works on paper, and the desire to create a dialogue that spans the centuries. The oldest piece dates back to the 16th century.

“In my work, I cover over 500 years of history so normally I don’t venture into contemporary art but it just seemed like the perfect match because Paul’s work is so invested in the past,” Del Re explained, adding that it was the first time in her 20-year career to work with a living artist on a show.

“It was quite something to say I have a living, breathing artist in front of me and I can speak to him. It was thrilling that we could connect on all of these topics. He knew exactly what I was speaking about when I mentioned artists who are not household names.”

She was delighted, too, when Paul brought to her attention the beautifully rendered de Montesquiou portrait, and informed her that the flamboyant Parisian was a legendary figure in the queer community.

“It was a wonderful discovery,” Del Re said. “I always learn from my projects but to have an artist point out this specific portrait of a dandy icon was really a revelation. And it’s complete serendipity how well it works with Paul’s painting.”

Paul P. is known for his skill in drawing and painting, particularly evident in his ongoing series of portraits of young men, their likenesses inspired by the images published in gay erotic magazines of the 1970s. His artwork finds beauty, vulnerability and sensitivity in these pre-AIDS faces.

With a couple of exceptions, the show focuses on smaller, less splashy pieces. “Paul’s work is enigmatic, quiet and contemplative so I don’t think it would have been a good match to have something very bold,” Del Re said. “It was important to have these small-format, quieter works.”

At the same time that it’s celebrating Paul’s work, the show makes a powerful statement on free expression by demystifying what the artist describes as the “secretive visual language” of homosexual art of the ages, essentially forcing a handful of artists from the past out of the closet.

“If there was any confusion, ambiguity or oversight about an artist’s sexuality, exhibiting them within this exhibition in the context of innuendo and the history of implicit representation of homosexuality, (we’re) hoping that the research and the writings that Sonia and I have done enters the archives for posterity,” Paul said.

“I’m always trying to reconcile the opposing forces of the explicit and the implicit so they wrestle with each other,” he added. “I can’t really allow the implicit to continue when I’m being so obvious and direct about my statements but I do hope that someone can also just look at it and enjoy the work.”

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.
A winter weather travel advisory is in effect from Cornwall to Pembroke, Environment Canada announced Saturday.
365 Bloor Street East, Toronto, Ontario, M4W 3L4
© 2023 Ottawa Citizen, a division of Postmedia Network Inc. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution, transmission or republication strictly prohibited.
This website uses cookies to personalize your content (including ads), and allows us to analyze our traffic. Read more about cookies here. By continuing to use our site, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.


Leave a Comment