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Canadian artist brings lawyer into fight with National Portrait Gallery

Canadian artist AA Bronson has brought a lawyer into his dispute with the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. over the gallery's refusal to return to Canada one of his works currently in a controversial exhibition there.

Paul E. Bain, counsel with the Toronto firm Dickinson-Wright, sent a letter Monday to NPG director Martin Sullivan and G. Wayne Clough, head of the Smithsonian Institution, the NPG's parent organization, demanding that the work, titled Felix, June 5, 1994, "be removed forthwith" from "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" at the NPG.

Felix, June 5, 1994, a mural-sized lacquer-on-vinyl photograph, was bought by the National Gallery of Canada in 2001 from Mr. Bronson and lent by the gallery in October last year to the Washington exhibition that concludes Feb. 13. Previously the National Gallery lent the work to Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2006 as well as to Calgary's Illingworth Kerr Gallery and the Mendal Art Gallery in Saskatoon, in 2004 on each occasion.

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Mr. Bronson has been trying to get the work removed from Washington since mid-December to protest the Nov. 30 removal of a four-minute excerpt from a longer video by the late American artist David Wojarnowicz. The 13-minute video, A Fire in My Belly, shot by Mr. Wojnarowicz in 1987 five years before his death from AIDS, had drawn the wrath of conservative organizations and politicians who claim an 11-second sequence of ants crawling over a bloodied crucifix is anti-Christian. The Smithsonian agreed to yank the video, arguing "the way [its imagery]was being interpreted" was "overshadowing the importance and understanding of the entire exhibition" which includes art by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Georgia O'Keeffe, among others. The Smithsonian action has been condemned in many quarters, including the Association of Art Museum Directors.

In his letter, Mr. Bain argues that Mr. Bronson holds copyright in the work owned by the National Gallery and, as such, "has the exclusive right to display the work." While the National Gallery "enjoys certain limited rights," Mr. Bronson hasn't, "to our knowledge, granted or expressed any permission or license to exhibit" Felix, June 5, 1994 "to any party . . . in conjunction with" the Washington show." Mr. Bain's letter gives the NPG and the Smithsonian until Jan. 17 to remove the work which depicts the corpse of Felix Partz shortly after his death from AIDS. Mr. Partz was, with Mr. Bronson and the late Jorge Zontal, one of the founders of the General Idea art collective in the late 1960s.

The only "out" Mr. Bain offers the NPG and the Smithsonian is for the "re-installation" of the Wojnarowicz video. Should this occur, "our client will rescind his demand."

It appears Mr. Bronson is trying tp test the so-called "moral right" associated with copyright by asserting that showing Felix, June 5, 1994 in Washington makes him an unwilling "accessory to censorship" and that his work has been "altered" by being presented in a compromised context. Last month the National Gallery said it sympathized with Mr. Bronson's position but declined to invoke its "kill clause" to return the work to Ottawa from Washington.

Senior administrators at the National Gallery were not available for comment Monday on whether the gallery's 2001 purchase agreement allows Mr. Bronson any say as to where or in what circumstances his work can be shown.

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