Eli Langer's show of eight paintings and various small pencil drawings is much talked about in Toronto art circles these days - much talked about because no one knows what to make of it. In a community that sets few limits when it comes to explicitness, Langer's subject matter breaks one of the last taboos: the sexuality of children. The paintings, gorgeously rendered in a duo-toned chiaroscuro of red and black, show children and adults in various forms of sexual play. A naked child sits on the lap of a naked man who might be her grandfather. A masked intruder climbs through a window into a bedroom where a naked girl straddles the neck of an adult and very erect man who lies on the bed. Langer's attitude toward these activities is ambivalent - they are depicted with both horror and fascination - but what is definitive about the paintings is that the children are not portrayed as victims but rather as willing participants. In fact, if you substitute an adult woman for the girl you have rather ordinary scenes of passion.
In the press release announcing this show, the Mercer Union has this to say about the paintings: "His images are largely informed by intuitive personal and social drives, exploring the phenomenon of intimacy where it exists without the compensation of social or cultural consent." That these purposefully shocking images engender such bland and euphemistic prose - "without compensation of social or cultural consent" is what you and I know as illegal - shows up one of the great ironies of the contemporary avant-garde. A movement whose purpose was to question convention has allowed itself to become so institutionalized, so removed from uninitiated audiences, that it increasingly finds it impossible to shock. Langer fits within the grand old tradition known as "epater les bourgeois", but the bourgeois who might be dumbfounded by these paintings will never venture into the Mercer Union. Instead, right-minded intellectuals, all determined not to be shocked and by extension ensuring they don't feel, stand around and ponder the works.
Let it be said then, that they are horrible - both the paintings and the pencil drawings which feature a dreary catalogue of don'ts (children masturbating, performing fellatio, or buggering each other). The whole show is a self-conscious, juvenile prodding of its own excrement. Langer is young and he can paint marvellously well. Maybe when he grows up he'll be an artist.