Ydessa Hendeles: The Milliner’s Daughter, 2017. Installation view: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2017. Photos: Henry Chan

A nuanced retrospective of Ydessa Hendeles’ work 

On June 23rd, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery opened their summer exhibit, curated by director Gaëtane Verne. The Milliner’s Daughter is Ydessa Hendeles’ premiere retrospective exhibition. Hendeles started her career in Toronto, first as an artist and then as a curator, opening her own gallery in 1988. In more recent years, she’s moved from the role of curator of her gallery to divesting her collection to different institutions around the world. It’s also allowed her to focus more on her work as an artist. The Milliner’s Daughter includes a new portion, “Blue Bird” (2016), as well as many elements from other shows dating back to 2006. The Milliner’s Daughter creates a nuanced narrative of family and personal influence.   

The exhibit uses various mediums to present a broad and dynamic experience. An almost mythical look at history is achieved through references to traditional fairytales and fables, as well as through the use of ominous lighting and dark curtains to mark the entrances and exits to different sections of the exhibit. One of these sections is titled; “From Her Wooden Sleep…” (2013) and stands out notably. It occupies a room that displays wooden dolls posed in various ways: sitting on benches or missing body parts. A dollhouse and distorted mirrors add a sinister and childlike essence to the space. The juxtaposition between childhood whimsy and darkness is a thread throughout the entire exhibit. 

Another notable continuation of this theme is in “The Dead Jumbo” (2011), which uses a French Bulldog toy with Blumer & Schumer’s Jumbo logo on it’s tag, and then a blown up obituary, which was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1885 on the death of a circus elephant named Jumbo. Again, we see Hendeles’ juxtaposition between the use of childlike objects and thematically dark art. The Bulldog bears “made in Germany US zone” on it’s stomach, and the language used in both the obituary and the description of the piece make direct connection between the gruesome death of the elephant and the Holocaust. Hendeles’ parents were Holocaust survivors and it’s an experience used throughout her body of work. The way that Hendeles uses her family’s narrative as influence is clear here. 

In both of these pieces, as well as the rest of the exhibit, Hendeles’ juxtaposition of whimsical objects or images with darker themes highlight experience. The breadth of ways that Hendeles does this is impressive, however, the darkness and complexity of the pieces shown makes the exhibit feel somewhat inaccessible. The impact of her art relies very much on the viewer’s ability to make the connection between the piece’s initial appearance as a simple object (for example, as a toy or dolls), and its secondary symbolism. At many points, it was a struggle to find a more significant meaning to Hendeles’ pieces due to the depth of analysis and understanding of context required. 

The Power Plant’s positioning in Toronto’s geographical space at Harbourfront means there is huge potential to engage a broad audience in free art. With this in mind, it’s clear that The Milliner’s Daughter perhaps doesn’t succeed in creating art that engages members of the community who might lack a more in-depth knowledge of the artist and her work. However, Hendeles’ exhibit does achieve an incredibly immersive and connected experience reflecting the artist’s use of deep and personal history in her work.