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A hyper-conceptualist confronts the Apocalypse

Nestor Kruger at Katzman Kamen Gallery

Until Feb. 11, 80 Spadina Ave., Toronto;

The work of hyper-conceptualist Nestor Kruger usually leaves me cold, cold as the gleaming but lifeless surface of an ivory tower.

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Kruger is a first-rank member of the art about art about art (ad infinitum) school, a practitioner of an elitist aesthetic that privileges in-the-knowness over communication, the educated gaze (and thus class rank) over inclusiveness, and worst of all – how to put this politely? – a markedly retentive tone.

He is hardly alone in the tower. Like many of his high-conceptual cohorts, Kruger makes work that glories in its own professorial nods and winks, its exclusivity, which often makes the actual finished product about as visually captivating as a bibliography.

Well, snap my garters if Kruger hasn't gone and made himself an exhibition – In Fact, now on display at Katzman Kamen Gallery – that is both typically Krugeresque, by which I mean unnecessarily baffling, but also, pling!, lovely to behold.

I nearly fainted from the sharp shock.

Kruger's subject this time around, nothing less than the end of the world, is perfectly suited to his information-coveting style. After all, nobody knows if the world will end, or when; all we have are mysterious signs and symbols, cryptic prophecies, whispers from the Illuminati. Rarely have subject and artist been so neatly paired.

Here's what you'll see. First, seven framed, digitally derived maps (folded inside frames so as to highlight each of the Earth's seven continents), with deep colours (red, blue, purple, green and so on) representing the briny deep. Each map also bears a series of strange, interlocking polygonal shapes, perhaps a form of text.

At the end of this chain of maps, another set of maps, fully unfolded, waits, framed together one on top of another, on the wall. Beside them rest four paper bags filled with flour, labelled "I Will Destroy All," with supporting pseudo-biblical, End Times text. These happy fun bags are paired with two murals representing explosions, rendered in black dots, and a large photograph of what looks like a star map.

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Finally, in the middle of the room, two flat boards, propped up on the floor, act as screens for facing projections – one a series of striations and pulses zinging across a slowly changing colour field, the other an image of a spinning, flaring and constantly erupting sun, perhaps our own.

Here's what (in very small part) the work means, according to the very helpful gallerist.

The colours on the maps' seascapes are derived from television test patterns. The weird near-text running along the sides of the maps is a font based, in part, on a work by Kruger's minimalist/conceptualist forefather Sol LeWitt.

The words decorating the flour bags are indeed taken (again, in part) from the Christian Bible, and perhaps some other apocalyptic scriptures. The exploding dots are replicas of asteroids currently hurtling toward our dear planet. The star map is actually a photograph of snow.

The colours in the striped video are related, in a way I could not unpack, to the colour spectrum produced (at least, I understand, in part) by the various gasses given off by the sun (that would be the same sun in the accompanying video, which is indeed our sun).

And that ain't the half of it.

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There are apparently multiple other layers of reference embedded in the exhibition. But, as I was informed, Kruger prefers to keep those secret. Besides, I figure I climbed high enough up the precious tower after all that.

So, why didn't I find this shrouded, arguably opaque to the point of invisibility, assortment annoying? More important, why won't you?

Because, with Apocalypse talk everywhere these days, Kruger explores the cultural phenomenon not as an opportunity for finger wagging or good old-fashioned hellfire fear, but as a culturally loaded moment ripe for investigation. It's a rich vein, and Kruger mines it well. Almost to the point of full-on, gasp, viewer engagement.

The end of the world, Kruger appears to be arguing, is not a time to panic, but a time to revel in multiplicities of meaning, to play with subsets of information and to ponder our collective fate, ponder it at leisure (an activity that mass media, unlike art, more or less forbids).

If the world is to end soon, there's nothing to be done. You might as well enjoy the spooky shadow-puppet show.

Dagmara Genda and Jay Wilson at KWT Contemporary

Until Feb. 19, 624 Richmond St. W., Toronto;

Painter Dagmara Genda and sculptor Jay Wilson are an odd couple, or coupling.No sensible curator would put Genda's mad, cacophonous paintings of worlds flooded in flesh-pink waves next to Wilson's meticulous toothpick towers and laser-cut steel assemblages. But common sense is a bore.

Genda is a part of a burgeoning school of painting I am dubbing the New Neo-Expressionists (okay, yes, that tag needs work). In such paintings, the strategy is to draw the viewer in via a whirlwind (or whirlpool) of kineticism, with bold flourishes of blended colours, and then hold the viewer tight with feverish daub-and-swipe brushwork juxtaposed against clusters of maniacally detailed illustration.

Wilson, on the other hand, is about as open to accident as a heart surgeon. His works are so exquisitely crafted and make no gesture toward covering their labour-intensiveness, so that they make you a bit light-headed and cause the hands to tremble in a sympathetic attack of nerves.

The connection between the two artists is thus one of point-counterpoint. Genda masks her labours with decoying, bold strokes. Wilson practically sits you down and makes the work with you.

Pick your favourite style of high-wire act.

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