Personal animus comes through in artist’s nonsensical works

  • February 23, 2011
Toronto artist Peter Alexander Por is an angry man.

As I found on a visit to his controversial show of paintings and sculptures at Toronto’s Bezpala Brown Gallery (which ended Feb. 25), Por is angry, in a general way, with the mostly 20th-century tyrants who have killed millions of people and made life miserable for many millions more. Most of the 30 canvasses on display are crudely sketched portraits of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot and other modern political monsters, emblazoned with the numbers of those who, Por claims, died as a result of their wars and persecutions. Though we have heard such statistics before, these numbers still have the power to stagger and amaze: Mao (4.5 million dead), Ayatollah Khomeini (700,000), Rwandan leader Theoniste Bagosora (one million), Pol Pot (two million), and so on.

Had Por limited his expressions of rage to this rather standard list of horrific characters from recent history, his show (entitled Persona Non Grata: the Veil of History) would probably not have raised an eyebrow among critics or the wider public. The works are not distinguished artistically, and few Torontonians, I suspect, would object to art that merely pillories the usual arch-villains of the modern era.

But — this is what’s gotten his show splashed across the pages of Canadian mass media and the Internet — Por’s ire extends beyond the predictable list of notorious bad guys to include the leadership, past and present, of the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI gets the full-dress treatment withheld from Por’s other subjects: a sumptuously painted portrait (not a feeble sketch) with a rich background. And, of course, there are those holes the media and commentators have played up — ordinary holes laid out across the picture on a grid, as it happens, not the “bullet holes” that have been widely reported. (Joanne McGarry, executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, obviously hadn’t seen the painting before she suggested, in a Catholic Register column, investigation of the show under hate crime laws.)

Real bullet holes, of course, would have been bad: Nobody’s image should be used for target practice. But I found myself groaning when I learned what the artist actually had in mind. In an interview with Catholic Register reporter Sheila Dabu Nonato, Por said that the 37 holes “represent a ‘visual pun’ on the Pope as a ‘holey’ man. ‘In a way, I’m a court jester. I’ve told the Pope his story about the sex abuse is full of nonsense or gaps, and those are holes,’ the 66-year-old artist said.”

This silly play on words calls into question the seriousness of everything else Por has done here. For if Benedict, who has killed nobody, is to be held up to ridicule in the same manner as Pol Pot, does that not make the two men morally equivalent? This is patent nonsense. But it’s certainly no more absurd than Por’s portrayal of U.S. President Barack Obama on the cross, crucified, we are to assume, by the current congressional deadlock of Democrats and Republicans. Such tasteless, coarse, bombastic cartooning, here and in the Benedict portrait, suggests that Por has been badly blindsided by personal animus against the Church and American political culture, to the detriment of his art.

While I don’t like most of what Por has done — but the sculptures, dedicated to the French Cathar heretics once hounded by the Church, are quirky and interesting — I find it impossible to deny all sympathy to the artist himself. Many, many people, like Por, have been outraged, dismayed and disgusted by the child-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Some of the outraged believe that the Church has turned a significant corner in this affair, and is now trying to do justice to both the offenders and the offended. Others do not believe any such thing. To these latter folk, Catholics have a special responsibility to be caring, understanding and patient — in the hope that we can win them back from bitterness and disappointment to a full life in the sacraments and the promises of faith.

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