5 min

Opening up the Y front

Will Munro's war against conformity

Credit: Paula Wilson. Art Direction: Will Munroe

One of my favourite photographs is a Will Munro Polaroid that features a lovely, monster-wigged lady (me) being molested by a daddy bear dressed only in a pair of tight, Harley-Davidson gotchies. My smile is Giaconda-like, dreamy. And the bear looks very happy to be wearing a work of art.

Welcome to the world of underwear artist Will Munro, a fantastical place where not-so-gentle Bens flirt with tattered queens and skinny aesthetes drape their shaved loins in Def Leppard and Twisted Sister Y fronts – a gender and textile free-for-all that (literally) knocks the socks off of Toronto’s stuffy art scene.

Munro is best known as the guiding force behind the monthly Vazaleen parties – a wild mix of rock, pop, and poofs that has garnered a huge following and national media attention. But Munro is much, much more than a party promoter, even if he sometimes acts like Generation Y’s Jaymz Bee.

Munro is an accomplished young artist with an impressive exhibition history, plus all the ideological smarts to back it up. Don’t let his chosen medium of men’s briefs distract you from his deeper message of sexual and social freedom.

A mere 27 years old and only two years out of the Ontario College Of Art, Munro has exhibited at A Space, for whom he constructed a working outhouse, West Wing, Art System, Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Zsa Zsa, and at the Art Gallery Of Ontario’s prestigious 100th anniversary party. For the AGO gig, Munro covered the washroom fixtures with 1970s wallpaper nature murals.

“The best part was watching these rich men in their Armani suits ponying up to the urinals to take a piss off a mountain top or onto a giant redwood,” says Munro. “The AGO should have left the murals up.”

A true child of the Mississauga strip malls, Munro originally intended to become a tattoo artist (a career his older brother now pursues in St John’s), but was drawn to textile manipulation in his second year of school.

“I stumbled on underwear as a subject by accident. It began as a kind of object study. I used to steal underwear from my boyfriends in high school, and when I moved to Toronto my underwear collection was one of the few things I brought with me.

“I started to work with my collection because it had no functional purpose – I mean, I wasn’t wearing the briefs – but they did have a psychological purpose. One of the first works I did was at the Nora Vaughan gallery, which used to be on King West, next to Mercer Union. I made these sort of curtains of underwear, floor to ceiling lengths of briefs hung on strings. A little while after that show, Nora Vaughan took her money out of the gallery and it closed. Andrew Harwood was working at Mercer Union at the time and he told everybody that the gallery closed because of my art. I can only hope.”

Since his first foray into the semi-private world of smalls and slips, Munro has led a multimedia campaign to make the Toronto art world more fun and more accessible. Through the Vazaleen parties, now held the last Friday of the month at Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor St W), Munro is creating a new democracy in the arts.

“Vazaleen is for everybody – every body. I wanted to create an event that had more spunk, and, more important, way more crossover appeal. I try to promote queer culture and queer art in a context that most people don’t consider artistic – a bar. Vazaleen is a space where all of Toronto’s conservative values can be thrown out – and that totally applies to the art world as well.

“At the same time, I want the parties to highlight queer rock history, to show people where the things they take for granted come from.”

Such as? “A lot of performance art comes out of rock culture. Think about people like Little Richard, or Carole Pope, who invented an entire way of presenting yourself publicly as a queer. A lot of artists my age use this material, these strategies, but they have no idea of the history. I’m one of those information hungry people, and I’m intrigued by the queer history of rock. That flashy, dragged out, messy and dangerous feel of queer rock totally influences my art and how I present my art.”

To wit, Munro’s next exhibit is a twist on the traditional fashion show. Actually, twist is too gentle a word – the show’s a headlock. Munro is taking over the top floor of Remington’s for a night and coaxing local queers to model his latest collection of re-constructed underwear. So much for a typical night of G-strings and bikini waxes.

“I’ve been making functional underwear lately, not just visual object underwear, and I want people to see it on live bodies. I’m exploring different types of masculinity with the underwear – for instance, you might see a big muscle guy wearing a pair of pink unicorn underwear with feathers.

“Sometimes the gay world is very narrow in its perception of what is masculine – so I’m trying to get a huge selection of body types for the show. Bears to fairies to boy-girls. Toronto has some of the world’s best boy-identified gals. But right now I really, really need some bears. Big bears. But bears are so shy.”

Doesn’t sound like your typical Calvin Klein show, does it? Munro laughs, “No, no way. I want to get rid of all that whiteness, all that repression and hygiene, all that fear of the dirty body. I know that underwear is a big fetish, but most of the time it’s a fetish based on sterility and clinicality.

“I want to fuck with that fetish, so my underwear is made out of recycled clothes. I buy the underwear, usually from Goodwill, pounds of it, then pull it apart until there’s only the elastics left. Then I find some great granny polyester dress or a heavy metal T-shirt and rebuild the underwear from that material. I guess maybe I’m making a new sort of fetish.”

The show itself will be a typical Munro multimedia splash, with slide projections, music provided by the band Cheerleader, lots of female to male to female fluidity (“The show’s all about crotch,” says Munro, “and everybody’s got one”), plus appearances by art stars such as Andy Paterson, Luis Jacob, and Lex Vaughn.

“The show is not a runway show,” Munro emphasizes. “I am really working with my models who aren’t models, matching the underwear with their personalities, their look, and the kind of music they like. This is not about uniformity.

“Besides, Remington’s is letting us use the lap dancing rooms as changing rooms – so how ‘fashion show’ could it ever be? I’m really hoping some of these artists will become instant exotic dancers. The money’s really good, after all.”

The only remaining question is what’s Munro got against boxer shorts?

“Boxers are already pretty decorative. I’m more attracted to the innocence and awkwardness of Y-front briefs – they have more psychological information. There’s a whole under history of violence and terror to briefs that still lingers today.”

I ask Munro to explain and he ends the interview with one last intellectual wedgie.

“Didn’t you know briefs only became popular after the first world war, when they were mass-produced for soldiers?”

Sun, May 5.


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(416) 977-2160

* Will Munro’s underwear will wend its way into a gallery in June. Look for a forthcoming photo show at Zsa Zsa Gallery (Queen St W); more info at