Toronto’s Power Plant Gallery Devotes Its Summer Program to a Canadian Art Legend

There’s no question that artist-curator Ydessa Hendeles helped build the arts and culture scene in her adopted homeland. Born in Marburg, Germany in 1948 to Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors, and moving to Canada when she was six, the Toronto-based Hendeles has been on all sides of the arts spectrum, from creator to curator, gallerist and personal collector.

In the 1980s, she opened the Ydessa Gallery, a commercial space on Toronto’s Queen Street West devoted to the presentation of Canadian contemporary art. There, she helped propel the careers of Canadian artists like Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham. But bigger things were on the horizon, and in 1988, Hendeles turned a former two-storey uniform factory in the city’s King West district into the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation.

The first privately funded exhibition space for contemporary art in Canada, Hendeles began curating and mounting theme-oriented exhibitions from artworks in her private collection. She devoted 25 years to the innovative space before closing the foundation’s doors in 2012, and became internationally renowned by art aficionados as a pioneer who helped turn curatorship into an art form of its very own. Using found objects and artefacts from vintage photographs and toys to rare sculptures as her storytelling medium, Hendeles explores notions of difference and diversity, and particularly the way representation, appropriation and assimilation can separate group and individual identities. Over time, Hendeles began splitting her time between studios in Toronto and New York, and started divesting her remarkable art collection by donating 32 artworks to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

On June 24th, the Power Plant gallery gives over its two-floor art space to Hendeles’ “The Milliner’s Daughter”. The exhibit marks not only the debut survey of Hendeles’ work in Toronto, but the first time in the Power Plant’s 30-year history that a solo female artist has taken over the entire gallery.

“I was struck by Ydessa Hendeles’ ability to research, document and go to extreme lengths in order to develop a detailed project with all the care that makes up the core of curating,” says Gaëtane Verna, the Power Plant’s director. “Her ability to show different objects side by side, whether they are from different periods of time and from different sources, is exceptional, striking, unprecedented, and unsettling.”

The summer exhibition includes Hendeles’ From her wooden sleep… (2013), a large-scale installation built around a collection of wooden artists’ manikins dating from 1520 to 1930, and ranging in scale from palm to life-size. Sitting on benches arranged on the gallery floor instead of on podiums, the manikins form a distinct community with a collective gaze. The intense scenario almost casts visitors as outsiders, and challenges them to decode their relationship with the wooden figures.

Also part of The Milliner’s Daughter are The Bird That Made The Breeze to Blow (Berlin, 2012), a deeply personal work that turns the spotlight directly on Hendeles and her history, and the unveiling of Blue Beard (2016), a brand new piece commissioned by the gallery to act as a dramatic entryway to the exhibition.

“I felt that the issues of memory, migration, displacement, racism, refugees, and acceptance were central to Hendeles’s many works,” says Verna. “And that elements of her personal biography in relation to …her parents’ immigration to Canada would strike a common chord with many Canadians, as we all (those who are not Canada’s indigenous people) are immigrants to the country,” says Verna.

Ydessa Hendeles’ “The Milliner’s Daughter” is on view at the Power Plant gallery from June 24th until September 4th, 2017.