Power Plant Disappointed: On Kawara Does Not Provide Dated Canvases to Mark the Beginning and End of His Show

by Art Fag City on January 5, 2006 Events

If you happen to be in Toronto over the next couple of months, you might consider visiting The Power Plant. There isn’t anything on view currently that is going to get a good review from Art Fag City, but the On Kawara retrospective at least gives a viewer a lot to think about – that is assuming one cares to contemplate the significance of a single date inscribed on a canvas.

Inspiring the age old gallery goer question “What is this shit?”, (recently noted here), this traveling show does it’s best to highlight all the insipid qualities of 60’s and 70’s conceptual art (try not thinking about theFluxus movement in a room full of telegrams with the message I am still alive), and does nothing to bring out the poignant aspects of the artist’s work. The monumentalization of a date with only an implied narrative has some beautiful moments in On Kawara’s work, but in this show, is lost in sea of medium sized canvases on the wall. There may be an element of inevitability to the problem of oversaturation in this retrospective since this is a guy who has spent the last 35 years of his life remaking the same idea, now conveniently housed in one gallery. Currently on display are 40 paintings from the Today Series (as shown above: white on black canvases reading the date they were made), along with hundreds of telegrams On Kawara sent to art world people we are supposed to give a shit about that read “I am still alive”, and two ten volume book sets, One Million Years (Past) and One Million Years (Future), dedicated those who have lived and died” and to “the last one”.

Putting aside curatorial concerns such as omissions and inclusions of work, the trouble with evaluating retrospectives of conceptual artists such as On Kawara, is that the work is very often dependent on the discourse that surrounds it, which has by now been digested. And frankly, the original dialogue may never have been that interesting. As far as I am concerned, On Kawara does not deserve the attention he has received over the years, and this exhibition proves the point. I mean, sure, the work’s “eloquence is in what it doesn’t say”,* but the problem with the art on display (excluding the ten volume books), is that it doesn’t say enough. I’m tired of theory and criticism supporting work that does not stand alone and I’m tired of the artist’s personality being a stand in for talent (and by this I mean, the fact On Kawara avoids his openings, does not add an additional layer meaning to the man’s work – it may be consistent with a the feeling of absence in the work, but adds nothing significant). The artist has inspired many BFA thesis projects documenting hair growth, and frankly, this is the kind of influence I can do with out. The show is worth going to see, but only because it demonstrates how over rated this “major” artist is.

Additional Notes:

1. Representing every negative video art stereotype there is, the New York based artist Javier Tellez, a New York based artist, exhibits a work titled “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc” at the Power Plant. Woman at a mental institution chronicle their abuse while footage of a crying woman and priests is played on an opposing wall. News flash to the artist: Despite what you would have us believe, Mental health treatment has improved since the middle ages, so let’s put an end to making movies that see no problem in using mass generalizations to make a point.

2. Upstairs at the Power Plant is “The Cold City Years” or “My Grade Eight Scrapbook” an exhibition of artwork and ephemera for the Cold City Gallery in Toronto from 1986-1999. Care to read program guides arranged haphazardly in vetrines? Me neither. Slides and artwork are also on display. Cold City started the careers of many Canadian artists, but the exhibition design is so bad that you figure they must be dismissable.

*Quote from the exhibition’’s curator, Jonathan Watkins

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