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Celebrating Canada's 2SLGBTQI+ Communities

ABOVE portrait by: Gigi Angeletti AKA Jean-Jacques Ringuette, 2016

How The Artist Evergon, By Being Unapologetically Queer, Became One Of Canada’s Most Respected Visual Artists

Evergon is among eight artists to win this year’s Governor General Awards in Visual and Media Arts…

By Paul Gallant

I was an impressionable young student when I stumbled into the 1988 retrospective of the artist Evergon in Ottawa’s National Gallery. I thought I had mistakenly stepped into some alternative gay universe, not a serious exhibit in a venerable national institution. I had never heard of the guy. And here were huge photos of homoerotic tableaus, velvety fabrics draped over bodies, the fabric doing little to hide male flesh. Then there was a series of otherworldly Polaroid snapshots of gay cruising grounds—in fact, this was how I learned about the existence of established gay cruising grounds, in a well-lit white room of the National Gallery. I couldn’t believe a serious curator would let this sort of art, which had no shame about homosexuality, in the door, never mind hung it on the walls. I looked around to make sure no one I knew witnessed me there. Then I settled in to take it all in.

Back in 1988, the Montreal-based artist was just getting started. Evergon’s had two more major retrospectives since then, and just last month, at age 77, won the prestigious Governor General Awards in Visual and Media Arts, worth $25,000, which he told me in an interview he’ll partly spend fixing the front of his house and studio. He’s become one of Canada’s best known visual artists.

ABOVE: Evergon’s ‘Mystic Beach’ (2001)

Back when he was starting out in the 1970s, not knowing that Canada was going to slowly become a much friendlier place for gay people, gay ideas, gay culture and gay images, I wondered aloud if it would have seemed foolish—downright dumb—for an ambitious young artist to pack so much queer sexuality into his work. But Evergon, born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, decided right from the start that’s exactly what he’d do. He wasn’t going to apologize for anything.

“I made a decision to be a gay politico, and I stuck to it,” he tells me. “There have been scandals, but no life-threatening incidents. The gay sexuality maybe was what got the work recognition, because it was outsider art. But it still remained within the world of fine art. I think these images should be big and in your face and that you can’t forget them.”

Yes, there have been scandals. The one that comes first to mind was a 1989 show at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, when Terrance Goudy, then a youth counsellor of the Society of Christian Counselling, now a retired minister, denounces the show for “promoting homosexuality and sadomasochism.” One wonders if Gaudy even saw the show. “Ever scandal stings, but that one was shocking because the show was travelling, it had been to five venues already,” says Evergon now. “The thing that happens is that someone publishes something making the scandal and that becomes the first base for the public observations, and you never really can change those impressions. Even if the gentleman making the observations is totally loony, there’s nothing you can do about it. It was frustrating.”

ABOVE: Evergon’s ‘Two Violinists’ (1990)

Though we now live in a world that can seem awash in sexual imagery, Evergon says it’s still possible to be as he’s been called, “Canada’s bad boy of photography.” “You can always be a bad boy. Even a lot of the new work is not preferred by the museums to show,” he says.

Working on the recent show Evergon. Theatres of the Intimate, which just closed a six-month run at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ), there were questions about how in-your-face it should be. “The first time Bernard [Lamarche, curator of contemporary art at MNBAQ] and I got together, he said, ‘The first image I want people to see is the big black dog.’ I thought, ‘If we’re going to play this game, the images that have to be in the show are the blowjobs.’ There was a lot of back and forth about what we wanted. Ultimately, both of us were malleable.”

Oddly enough, considering his track record, Evergon does not seem driven by a desire to shock. That was true even when, in 1999, he embarked on a project taking a series of nude photos of his mother, then 80, some of the poses quite absurd. In fact, the loving photos of his mother, who died several years ago after a period of living with and being cared for by Evergon, remain among his most popular; elderly ladies have given him the thumbs up across the room after they’ve seen them.

ABOVE: Evergon’s ‘Ramba Mama III’ (1992) and ‘Evergon with Herons and Shells’ (1979)

His visual language is perhaps what wins straight people over, allowing them to look past the sex references to see the beauty. Though he works in photography, many of his images have a painterly composition and make references to all sorts of fine art, as well as theatre. This formal rigor, paired with an otherworldliness that perhaps seems like it lack consequence in the real “straight” realm (he’s even created work using holograms), helped him win over the gatekeepers of the art world. His models, even at their hottest and most seductive, are often in historically accurate costumes or posing in classical poses. He’s an art historian as much as a creator of images.

“When I was seven or eight, they were already giving me art books, I was already drawing, looking at art, taking extra classes. I grew up on art history,” he says. The painterly background come in handy in silencing his critics. Creating one show, which required the help of a lab technician, Evergon realized the tech was homophobic; he had even shut down a photography project about the openly gay Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. “I put all the art reference and costume designs on the walls, leading [the technician] to believe it was all art historical. It worked. He came to love my work. In the long run, we became closer and we could work together,” says Evergon.

Evergon’s life is tightly intertwined with is art. He says looking through exhibitions of his own work is like reading his own diary, with each piece being tied to people and events in his life. “I went through the Musée national show with a friend of mine and it took us twice as long to go through it because I was, ‘Oh, that story goes with this, that gossip about that.’ It’s really personal. The pieces all relate to my love affairs and my remembrances of who was who.” That includes his three husband, the last one passing away in 2002.

ABOVE: Evergon’s ‘The Deposition From The Cross’ (1985) and ‘Old Hope’ (2017)

“I’ve been the old maid since then, the widower of the walk,” he says. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll run into someone. For most of my life, I’ve taught at the university, and I’ve had this art career, and I’ve had my mother, and those three things kept me more than busy enough. Even the last relationship was six months on, six months off because it was so intense we wouldn’t have been able to stay together. I think having as much on my plate all the time has played into love affairs and domestic life.”

Though Evergon may have suffered, relationship-wise, for his art, the culture has certainly benefited. Making work that’s so queer, yet, by art-world standards, so admirable has been a potent strategy to make Canadian art institutions more open to LGBTQ+ culture. In making the intimate public, the public intimate, Evergon found the right balance between notoriety and respect.

PAUL GALLANT is a Toronto-based writer and editor who writes about travel, innovation, city building, social issues (particularly LGBT issues) and business for a variety of national and international publications. He’s done time as lead editor at the loop magazine in Vancouver as well as Xtra and fab in Toronto. His debut novel, Still More Stubborn Stars, published by Acorn Press, is out now.

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