In a week that included a U.S. civilian award for Jasper Johns, who spearheaded what became pop-art, France is chiming in by honoring AA Bronson, a pioneer of the collective art practices so popular today.
The Minister of Culture in France has awarded the Canadian artist the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) for distinguished work in the arts. Besides his art, Bronson directs Chelsea’s re-knowned Printed Matter art bookstore.
Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, AA Bronson founded General Idea with fellow artists Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz in 1967. Working out of Toronto and New York through the ’80s, General Idea lasted as a group until 1994, when both of Bronson’s colleagues died of AIDS.
General Idea’s basic visual currents dealt with media through Situationist techniques of detournement or highjacking popular messages to subversive ends. There were hijinx too. Such as the group’s 1974 work in their magazine FILE (an anagram of LIFE) promoting the Vancouver mayoral campaign of Mr. Peanut—artist Vincent Trasov ran as a candidate dressed in a top-hatted peanut costume.
Things became more serious when the group became part of AIDS awareness campaigns in the mid-’80s (though never a part of Act Up) and were directly touched by the AIDS epidemic. They made works, nonetheless, using their well-established techniques; appropriating, for example, Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE image and replacing the four letters cubed with the word AIDS. As Bronson told Paul O’Neill in an interview: “we wanted visibility for a disease that was being hushed. We took the logo, dealt with it like an advertising campaign, and sent it out like a virus in the world.”
Since work with General Idea, Bronson’s work has been deeply affected by the trauma and pain he saw his collaborators and community suffer through. Such as his haunting black-and-white photos of the 1990s showing string-bound flesh reminiscent of Hans Belmar. Or the wrenching Felix, June 5, 1994 showing the emaciated corpse of his longtime collaborator.
Since launching his solo career his art has also included religious imagery and spiritual themes, such as his “The School for Young Shamans” exhibit of 2008 and co-directorship of the The Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice project at the Union Theological Seminary in New York.
The French award was announced today on 54-year old Bronson’s Facebook fan page. A retrospective of General Idea opened last Friday, February 11, at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris.