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The Gold standard

Artist Michèle Pearson Clarke, City of Toronto Photo Laureate, is making her curatorial debut with the group exhibition We Buy Gold at Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.

Séamus Gallagher, A Slippery Place 4

Séamus Gallagher, A Slippery Place 4, 2019, Courtesy of the artist.

The 2021 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival kicked off May 1. Although in-person openings for indoor exhibitions have been postponed until later this year, there’s still a lot to check out virtually, including a powerful new group exhibition entitled  We Buy Gold, put together by City of Toronto Photo Laureate Michèle Pearson Clarke – making her curatorial debut at the Festival. 

Presented in partnership with the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies and Gallery TPW, We Buy Gold highlights the photographic work of 10 emerging LGBTQ+ artists living and working in Canada. The exhibition zeros in on the diverse perspectives of younger queer generations, attempting to move past the concept of representation into a more complex exploration of queer identities.

On May 25, Clarke will join Sophie Hackett, AGO Curator, Photography, artists Jess T. Dugan and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and artist and curator Ka-Man Tse for a conversation via Zoom unpacking the themes in We Buy Gold and sharing further insights about queer photography at large. 

We recently connected with Michèle Pearson Clarke to find out more. 

AGOinsider: Can you explain the meaning and origin of the exhibition title, We Buy Gold?    

Clarke: Titles are really important to me and I confess they’re very often more conceptual than literal when it comes to how they resonate for me. With this one, I had a very guttural response to this phrase when I saw it on a sign by the side of the road when I was stuck in traffic one day last summer. It fit for me because it speaks to questions of queer collectivity as well as the ways in which these photographic works are excavating value that is already present, despite what dismissive things mainstream narratives still have to say about queer and trans lives. And gold is coveted as a luxury item yes, but it can also be campy and tacky and excessive in its aesthetics. These tensions bring joy and conflict to queer culture in equal measure.

Nicholas Aiden, Armpit 1, 2019 (installation view, Arsenal Contemporary, 2020)

Nicholas Aiden, Armpit 1, 2019 (installation view, Arsenal Contemporary, 2020). Photo: Alexandra Votsis, Courtesy of Arsenal Contemporary.

The Gold Standard slideshow
Lacie Burning, Blockade Rider

Lacie Burning, Blockade Rider, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

The Gold Standard slideshow
Tom Hsu, Two Bananas

Tom Hsu, Two Bananas, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

The Gold Standard slideshow
Christopher Lacroix, Hold tight, I have a story (I am sorry)

Christopher Lacroix, Hold tight, I have a story (I am sorry), 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

The Gold Standard slideshow
Isabel Okoro, purple flame

Isabel Okoro, purple flame, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

The Gold Standard slideshow
Wynne Neilly & Kyle Lasky, Our Favourite Spot

Wynne Neilly & Kyle Lasky, Our Favourite Spot, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

The Gold Standard slideshow
Michelle Panting, Petroleum Jelly + Plastic Wrap Self Portrait #1

Michelle Panting, Petroleum Jelly + Plastic Wrap Self Portrait #1, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

The Gold Standard slideshow
Brianna Roye, Still Here

Brianna Roye, Still Here, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

The Gold Standard slideshow

AGOinsider: Can you share some of your process for bringing the exhibition together? Did you start by crafting a theme or by selecting the artists you wanted to include?   

Clarke: The exhibition was my proposal for an artist residency at the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, so to start, I knew that it would need to address LGBTQ issues. It was also an opportunity to explicitly incorporate my Photo Laureate role into my personal practice, which meant a focus on photography. And since this is my first time curating an exhibition, working with primarily emerging artists had a nice synergistic feel. As an artist myself, I then zeroed in on finding work that I loved and work that was interested in the photographic gesture along with the photograph itself, as I am. But the conversations I had with each of the selected artists also ultimately helped to frame the final exhibition. 

AGOinsider: In your description of We Buy Gold, you noted that the artists contributing to the exhibition are “concerned less with representing queerness and more with performing, challenging, and interrogating it.” Could you share some examples of works from the show that you feel reflect this important distinction? 

Clarke: Visual representation has been an important political strategy for some time, and previous generations of queer and trans photographers did vital work to bring visibility to our communities. Those political and cultural gains have paved the way for these younger artists to now use photography to ask different questions or to try to work out some difficult issues for themselves. So, for example, with A Slippery Place (2019), we have Séamus Gallagher exploring the role of virtual space dynamics in contemporary queer life, and with Blockade Rider (2019), we have Lacie Burning confronting us with Indigiqueer people’s relationships to land, representation and the gaze. Other issues under consideration in the show include masculine intimacy, imagined Black utopias and the impact of a conservative religious childhood.

AGOinsider: Though the in-gallery launch of We Buy Gold has been postponed due to the pandemic, you are launching a website dedicated to the exhibition on Friday, May 7. What can people find there?  

Clarke: Our website is not quite an online exhibition but is rather meant to be a companion to the in-person exhibition that will eventually be installed at Gallery TPW. You’ll be able to see images of the photographic works of the ten artists in the show, along with specially commissioned essays for each of the nine bodies of work (one project is a collaboration between two artists). Once the show is up, we’ll add installation shots and possibly some audio content as well. It’s just a small way to share these works with as many people as possible, and hopefully bring more opportunities to all of these very talented photographers. 

Check out the We Buy Gold official website launching  Friday, May 7, and register now for Art in the Spotlight: Talking Queer Photography happening Tuesday, May 25, at 4 pm.

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