Eli Langer

20 November 1993 - 22 December 1993
Opening Reception 20 November 1993 8pm

Main Gallery:

Eli Langer

A solo exhibition of work by Toronto artist Eli Langer opens on November 20th at 3pm and continues through December 22, 1993.

Langer’s work focuses on the tender and often abject aspects of sexuality and intimacy. 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.

In this series of paintings and drawings, Langer often boldly develops a sexual ambiguity that inadvertently addresses our cultural taboos and the formation of morality.



On December 16, 1993, five paintings and thirty-five drawings were removed from an exhibition of works by Eli Langer at Mercer Union by the Morality Bureau of the Metropolitan Toronto Police.

Mercer Union understands the origin of the work by Eli Langer to be imaginative, and to be in no way a measure of the acceptability of any implied activity in these works of art. We consider this work to be a serious exploration of the human psyche. Many contemporary artists have investigated sensitive issues, and we see Langer contributing to such discussions. In exhibiting these works Mercer Union neither intended to act unlawfully nor was aware that the exhibition was in breach of any law. Mercer Union’s Board of Directors would like to reiterate their support of the artistic merit of the work of Eli Langer. At this point, no charges have been laid.

The three paintings and fifteen drawings that remain in Eli Langer’s exhibition will be on view until December 22. Mercer Union is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Mercer Union is an artist-run centre whose mandate is to present and examine contemporary art. The gallery was founded in 1979, and has since programmed exhibitions of well-established and emerging Canadian and international artists.

– December 20, 1993


On December 16, 1993, five paintings and thirty-five drawings were removed from an exhibition of works by Eli Langer at Mercer Union by the Morality Bureau of the Metropolitan Toronto Police. Both Langer and Sharon Brooks, Director of Mercer Union, were subsequently charged with offences under the criminal code. Today, February 24, 1994, these charges have been withdrawn by the Crown Attorney’s office. Langer’s paintings and drawings, however, are to be subject to a forfeiture hearing and will be kept by the Metropolitan Toronto Police until a determination by the court is made.

The Board of Directors of Mercer Union are greatly relieved that these individuals no longer have to contend with the emotional ordeal of facing criminal charges. Mercer Union has received considerable support and informed advice during the period since the seizure of Langer’s work for which we are most grateful.

Eli Langer’s work thoughtfully and with considerable courage addresses the sexuality of children and our cultural perceptions of it. Prior to these charges being laid, this exhibition was exceptionally well attended and gave rise to much considered critical debate.

The Child Pornography Act has been revealed in this and in other instances to be a blunt instrument that does not address real criminal abuse of children. The passage of the law in the summer of 1993 was criticised for the undue speed with which it was rushed through the legislative process. This hasty action did not allow enough time for public commentary and discussion. We support and will participate in the public debate of this law which we believe should lead to its repeal.

Wrongly, Langer’s work has not been returned to him. The existence of the Child Pornography Act will have a chilling effect on the production of art and its circulation in this country. As an institution Mercer Union will actively work to insure that Langer’s art is returned to him. Bill C-128 is an inappropriate and oppressive measure that the Federal Government must repeal.


Kate Taylor

Globe and Mail, Tuesday, December 14, 1993

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 Iies 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 institutionalised, so removed from uninitiated audiences, that it increasingly finds it impossible to shock. Langer fits within the grand old tradition known as ├ępater 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 marvelously well. Maybe when he grows up he’ll be an artist.


Toronto Sun, December 1993

A Toronto art gallery said yesterday it meant no harm in exhibiting paintings of children masturbating and performing fellatio. Police seized 35 drawings, five paintings and a slide collection by Toronto artist Eli Langer from the Mercer Union Gallery on Thursday.

The gallery on the fifth floor of an Adelaide St. W. industrial building was locked yesterday. The gallery issued a statement describing the Langer works as imaginative and “a serious exploration of the human psyche.” The subject matter “in no way” signifies approval of the “implied activity in these works of art,” the gallery said.

The Mercer Union was awarded $41,400 by the Toronto Arts Council and $26,500 by Metro Council this year. No figures were available from the Ontario Arts Council, but in 1991-92 the OAC gave the gallery $86,450.

Lisa Steele, a noted Toronto artist and defender of freedom of expression, said Langer is “tapping into the levels of disclosure in our society” in which survivors of abuse are finally breaking their long silence. “It’s obviously an exploration of child sexual abuse,” said Bruce Walsh, a founder of the nationwide Censorstop network. But a Globe and Mail art critic last Tuesday described the exhibition as a “self-conscious, juvenile prodding of its own excrement.”

Metro Police “received a citizen’s complaint” about the art the next day, said morality squad Det. Terry Wark. Officers viewed the collection and two days later a warrant was obtained and the art seized. “We are now looking for a number of people to charge,” said Wark. He refused to say who or how many were being sought. The gallery reopens today, showing what the police didn’t take — three Langer paintings and 15 drawings.

The banal reality of censorship


Toronto Star, October 1994

If censorship worked, Canada would be a happy place. So long as we heard, saw or spoke no evil, evil would vanish. Child abuse, racism, sexism and the degradation of women would disappear along with their representation. Ban the image, and you stop the act. But this hasn’t happened. Common sense tells us it never will. Most of us have seen and survived dirty pictures and bad words.

Yet across North America, censorship is on the rise. Book bannings are up to levels unseen since the Nazi bonfires of the 1930s and ’40s. The American Library Association recently reported that literary censorship had increased threefold since 1979. The most censored books in the U.S. during the ’80s included The Diary Of Anne Frank, Catcher In The Rye, 1984, Of Mice And Men, The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn and Webster’s Dictionary, seventh edition. The religious right in the U.S wrapped in the cloak of “family values,” is the most vocal advocate of censorship, but its Canadian practitioners are mostly nameless, faceless bureaucrats, customs officials and police officers who open books and magazines, screen movies and visual art galleries defending public morality. On guard for community standards.

No Big Brother here, just countless Little Brothers. Some enforce antiquated laws dating hack to the days of bearded paternalism. Others act in the name of legislation passed as recently as the summer of 1993. Even if their intentions are always good, the results are more often bad. The reality behind the activities depicted is banned material — whether sadomasochism or pedophilia – remains the same.

Stopping images of sexual abuse doesn’t stop sexual abuse. The image isn’t the thing it self. As Belgian artist Rene Magritte illustrated by writing Ceci n’est pas une pipe on his painting of a pipe. Fantasy, even when pornographic, is by definition unreal. So, too, are the guidelines governing official censorship. What it boils down to for Canada’s 4,000 odd customs officers, for example, is a checklist of obscenity that includes eight categories: “anal penetration,” “beastiality,” “child sex,” “hate propaganda,” “incest,” “necrophilia,” “sex with violence” and, if these aren’t enough, “other.”

But, as the Little Sister’s Book And Art Emporium, Vancouver’s only lesbian and gay book store, has discovered, Canada Customs has other guidelines that aren’t spelled out. Since the shop opened in 1983, it has had hundreds of imported books seized at the border. In some cases, the same books destined for mainstrean stores weren’t touched. The owners of Little Sister’s have gone to trial to ask B.C Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Smith to declare unconstitutional the whole legal apparatus that allows Customs censorship. The case is ongoing.

In an October New Yorker magazine article on censorship in Canada, Toronto lawyer Brian Blugerman described the nuts and bolts of morality enforcement:

“First you have explicit sex with violence, and that’s pretty well always going to be obscene. Then you have explicit sex that is without violence but is degrading or dehumanising.”

Now, at this point, no one is sure what that means. The Ontario Film Review Board, which has to approve every film or video that is for sale or rent in the province, has interpreted it as meaning you can’t show double penetration,’ and you can’t show ejaculation on the face of a woman. Apparently it’s okay to show it on her neck or any other place. “Maybe those are strange things to single out, but that’s the rule if you go to Yonge Street, you may see 25 minutes of uninterrupted sex filmed from an inch and a half away, but you won’t see that.” It is an article of faith amongst those who blame the image that women must be protected from sex, that sex is hurtful for them.

In Canada, this was enshrined as legal precedent with the case of R. vs Butler in 1992. The Supreme Court affirmed the freedom of speech as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights yet ruled that porn could be censored not because it was immoral but because it harmed women.

“Materials portraying women as a class worthy of sexual exploitation and abuse have a negative impact on the individual’s sense of self-worth and acceptance,” declared Justice John Sopinka.

The facts, however, don’t bear him out. According to the Fraser Committee’s Working Paper On Pornography And Prostitution, released in 1984 by the federal justice department:

“There is no systematic research evidence available which suggests a causal relationship between pornography and morality …. There is no systematic research which suggests that increases in specific forms of deviant behaviour, reflected in crime trend statistics (e.g rape) are causally related to pornography…. There is no persuasive evidence that the viewing of pornography causes harm to the average adult … that exposure causes the average adult to hate others … that exposure causes the average adult to alter established sex practices.”

A British inquiry into obscenity and film censorship in reached an identical conclusion in 1990.

“We unhesitatingly reject the suggestion that the available statistical information for England and Wales lends any support to the argument that pornography acts as a stimulus to the commission of sexual violence” wrote its authors. Not suprisingly, the results of Butler have been contrary to expectations. While affirming freedom of expression and our right to “celebrate our sexuality” the Supreme Court introduced a proviso relating to the “harmful” effects of porn on women.

The problem arises in trying to prove that a specific book, movie or painting caused specific harm to a specific woman. As Toronto criminal lawyer Alan Gold told Maclean’s magazine last week, ‘There isn’t a shred of respectable research that supports that claim. Dirty pictures don’t cause anything” Yet in June, 1993, a dying Mulroney government, anxious to be seen to be doing the right thing, passed amendments to the Criminal Code that made it illegal for anyone to possess, show, or make written or visual materials depicting sex between people who are or appear to be under 18.

If nothing else, dirty pictures can cause rare outbursts of energy, however misguided, from Canadian Parliamentarians. The amendments got their first workout in court earlier this fall with the notorious Eli Langer case. Langer was charged under the act by Metro Toronto police for an exhibition of paintings and drawings of children in various sex acts with adults and other children. Eventually, the charges were withdrawn, but five canvases and 35 sketches were held for a forfeiture hearing. If they’re found “guilty,” they can be destroyed. Justice David McCombs of the Ontario general court division reserved judgment; his decision is expected by the end of the year.

The crown’s case, bolstered by testimony from three expert witnesses, was based on the assertion that Langer’s pictures would incite pedophiles to molest children. But most experts disagree. According to one, Dr. Henry Giarretto, founder and director of the Child Sexual Abuse Treatment Program in Santa Clara, Calif.: “Our program has not been designed to include collection of data on the use of pornography because the literature and our own clinical experience showed no link between the commission of child sexual abuse and sexually explicit material. “While it has been clinically noted that some perpetrators read and/or view sexually explicit material, many others express their feeling that pornography is immoral ” Dr. Edward Dormerstein of University of California testified: “Pedophiles . . . are just as turned on by child pornography, which is obviously illegal, (as by) a picture of a young male or female in the Sears catalogue.”

Meanwhile, censorship continues. But, as Marcia Pally writes her book, Sex And Sensibility (Ecco Press, 1994): “age-blaming, sexual and non-sexual, will not prevent rape or drug wars, nor will it fell sexism. It has no business being the basis for legislative or judicial remedies …. “Image-blaming, which casts women as victims of words and pictures, is another manipulation of the powerless. Like female frailty, it identifies many things from which women must be guarded and lays claim to make protection.”

The fact is that censorship wastes money, creates unnecessary problems and solves nothing. It removes art movies and books from society while the real issues — poverty, violence – go unanswered.It lulls us into a false sense of having made life better when all we’ve really done is ignore it.

Porn law drafted in haste, groups say
Canada would be ‘standing alone’ critics charge

Tracey Tyler

Globe and Mail, October 1994

Like book burnings in Nazi Germany, Eli Langer’s artwork “should be destroyed publicly for all to see” if it is forfeited to the state as child pornography, a judge has been told. If the 35 sketches and 5 paintings by Langer that were seized by Metro police are to be obliterated, it should occur in a spectacle as public as the prosecution that preceded it, Paul Bennett, a lawyer representing the Canadian branch of the writers’ group PEN International, told a hearing yesterday.

The hearing, the first to occur under Canada’s controversial child pornography legislation, is examining the question of whether Langer’s depictions of nude children and adults are illegal and should be forfeited, as well as the constitutionality of the law.

PEN and two other intervenor groups are arguing the legislation, which prohibits sexually explicit depictions of those who are or who appear to be under 18, is an unconstitutional violation of freedom of expression. A fourth group, Canadians for Decency, supports the legislation, saying it is a justifiable means of preventing harm to children.

Yesterday, a lawyer for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association condemned the law as a “testament” to Parliament’s haste in putting it together — despite objections from lawyers and parliamentarians. If the law is allowed to stand, “Canada will stand alone” in creating criminal sanctions against the non-obscene depictions of children, said Alan Young, counsel for another intervenor, the Canadian Conference on the Arts.

Reading aloud from sexually charged passages in novels by Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro and Timothy Findlay, Bennett told Mr. Justice David McCombs in Ontario Court, general division, that Canadian writers are concerned the law attacks not only artists such as Langer, but novelists and film makers who make visual depictions of the written word.

Langer, a 26 year-old self taught artist, was in the midst of his first exhibition, held at the publicly funded Mercer Union Gallery on Adelaide St., when Metro police morality squad officers seized the works last Dec. 16.

Although Langer and the gallery’s director were initially charged with violating the child pornography provisions of the Criminal Code, those charges were withdrawn by the crown which chose to prosecute the paintings instead. At the heart of the crown case has been testimony from two prominent psychologists and an equally respected psychiatrist that Langer’s work, which depicts adults and children in apparent sex acts with each other, along with one scene of a child defecating would help child molesters justify their behaviour and fuel the fantasies to the point of inciting them to commit an offence.

However, as the defence wrapped up its evidence yesterday, another noted sex offender expert, Toronto psychologist Ronald Langevin, told the court that a child molester would probably be more easily aroused by an advertisement for boys’ underwear. Science has yet to understand the underlying causes of pedophilia let alone establish a connection between pornography and offences against children, said Langevin.

Masterpiece at risk of ban art trial told

Tracey Tyler

Globe and Mail, October, 1994

Michaelangelo’s Renaissance masterpiece, the statue David, could be banned in Canada under the federal government’s sweeping anti-child pornography law, former CBC head Patrick Watson has suggested. Watson told a Toronto judge yesterday that the legislation is so imprecise in prohibiting sexual depictions of youth that the Italian sculpture housed in a museum in Florence, could be considered illegal “Personally, I don’t know how old he (David) is,” Watson said yesterday. “He’s a young man. Is he 17 18, 20?”

By restricting depictions of explicit sexuality and genitalia of those who are 18 or younger– as well as those who appear to be– the legislation is overly broad, Watson told Mr. Justice David McCombs of Ontario Court, general division, who is contemplating the potential forfeiture of artist Eli Langer’s works.

Watson was testifying as a defence witness in the second week of the unusual hearing, precipitated by the Metro police seizure Dec. 16 of five of the 26 year-old Langer’s paintings and 36 of his penciI drawings from the publicly funded Mercer Union Gallery on Adelaide St. While his opinions were being sought by the defence on the “chilling” effect of the law, ennacted by Parliament in June, 1993, the crown unsuccessfully opposed the admissibility of testimony from Watson and two other defence witnesses yesterday, arguing they lacked the requisite credentials. One, Tasse Geldhart, a painter with knowledge of the art therapy movement, told defence lawyer Frank Addario that she’s seen an estimated 120 abuse victims paint graphic sexual scenes involving children and adults, often as part of the healing process, either privately or for public display. The other witness, Varda Burstyn, a Toronto-based university lecturer on sexuality and pornography in popular culture, testified that censoring work such as Langer’s would impede frank discussions of how sexual depictions shape ideas about men and women.

While the legislation provides for a defence of artistic merit or any justifiable scientific, medical or public interest grounds, the defence argues it is unconstitutional, excluding other valid purposes from its net. Watson told the hearing that, while Canadian artsts have a duty as citizens to obey the child pornography provisions, the law comes with the price tag of repressing the view that has advanced civilization: that an artist must follow his vision.

In cross-examination, crown counsel David Butt asked Watson whether he would feel the same way if sexual behavior experts concluded that explicit depictions of child sexuality would put pedophiles at risk of committing an offence. “I would say,” Watson said, gazing searchingly at the court room ceiling, “the danger to society of repressing it . . . is greater than the danger of releasing.”

The crown’s case has centred on the evidence of three men experienced in the assessment and treatment of sex offenders. Yesterday, University of Toronto psychologist Jonathan Freedman wrapped up testimony countering the conclusion of one prosecution expert, Kingston psychologist William Marshall that exposure to child pornography weakens the ability of a pedophile to resist deviant responses. Freedman discredited a 1988 study by Marshall which found that pornography weakened the resistance of 36 per cent of convicted sex offenders, including among its myriad problems the study’s small sample size and the fact the convicts might have been trying to shift blame for their crimes away from them selves.

Dennis Reid, a former curator at the National Gallery of Canada and curator of historical works at the Art Gallery of Ontario, told the court yesterday that his opinion of Langer’s work as remarkable would remain unchanged even knowing it could incite pedophiles. By tackling the sometimes disturbing subject of cross-generational sexuality, Langer has joined an artistic tradition that stretches “certainly as far back as the 17th and 16th centuries,” he said.

Toronto art dealer Avrom Issacs, founder of the Issac Gallery for Contemporary Art and a member of the Order of Canada, told the court that Langer’s portrayals of children and adults don’t include gratuitous depictions of nudity or sexuality.

Artist backs right to paint sexual work

Tracey Tyler

Globe and Mail, October 1994

Toronto artist Eli Langer’s freedom to paint sexually explicit images of children should remain unfettered even if they incite child molesters to commit assaults, says a doyenne of the Canadian arts scene.

Doris McCarthy told a judge considering Canada’s child pornography law yesterday that anyone who would rely on Langer’s work as an excuse to molest minors is so disturbed that expunging the paintings would solve nothing. “You would have deviant behavior anyhow,” said McCarthy, 84, a member of the Order of Canada, who described Langer’s works seized by Metro police as “important, serious, passionate and interesting”. “I have no doubt at all he has artistic merit” she said emphatically, adding an observer would only have to consider Langer’s brooding black and red color schemes to realize his portrayals of nude children engaged in sex with adults carry a “condemnatory” message.

McCarthy, a landscape artist linked stylistically to the Group of Seven, was testifying for the defence as it began its case at an unprecedented hearing into the question of whether Langer’s work is child pornography as defined by federal legislation and, as such, should be forfeited to the state. The law prohibits sexual depictions of children who are or who appear to be 18 or younger, unless a defence of artistic merit, can be established.

Earlier yesterday, Toronto painter and sculptor Michael Snow described Lange’s work as “very good,” adding he found questions of its merit “silly and very bizarre.” Defence lawyer Frank Addario asked Snow if he felt the Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter” should be banned because it was cited by mass murderer Charles Manson as a vehicle which drove him to kill. “If anything, your question demonstrates our inability to predict the kind of effect art works can have,” Snow replied.

Predicting behaviour was at the centre of the crown’s case, which focused largely on testimony from three sex offender experts who said Langer’s work would appeal to pedophiles and fuel their erotic fantasies to the point where they would be at risk of committing an offence. Addario, who is representing five paintings and 35 pencil drawings by Langer that were confiscated by police from the Mercer Union Gallery last December said yesterday he will argue a connection between explicit pictures and child sexual abuse is unproven. He said he also plans to present experts to testify on the harmful effects of the law as part of a challenge to it’s constitutionality. These will include representatives from the art therapy community that promotes the painting of abuse memories by sexual assault victims.

Christopher Hume, art critic for the Toronto Star, testified he feels the community should and, in fact, already does tolerate art that presents difficult images, even those which experts feel may incite sexual crimes.”I think pedophilia is not an artist’s problem but rather a social problem and, if anything, Eli Langer has tried to shed some light on this issue,” Hume said. He told the court that when he visited Langer’s exhibition last December “the first thing I was struck by, after the images, was that the paintings were very good and that Eli Langer, despite the fact he was young and I didn’t know who he was, was a very good painter, to my mind.” Crown counsel David Butt asked Hume whether he would feel the same way if his own children were molested by a pedophile who cited Langer’s paintings as an impetus.

Mr. Justice David McCombs; who is hearing the case in Ontario Court, general division, interrupted before Hume could respond, describing the question as unfair.

Other Related Articles:


Crown wants art forfeited

Sean Fine
Globe and Mail
, February 1994

Legal Test in Canada: ‘Porn’ vs. Imagination

Clyde N. Farnsworth
New York Times
, January 1995

Artist’s sexual images ruled legal

Tracey Tyler
Globe and Mail
, April, 1995