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Ian Wallace: At the Intersection of Painting and Photography

By Daina Augaitis, editor

Review By John O'Brian

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 181 Spring 2014  | p. 159-61

This is the fifth catalogue published in conjunction with a solo art exhibition by Ian Wallace since 2007. It is also the largest and most handsomely designed of the group, the collaborative product of an agreement between the Vancouver Art Gallery and Black Dog Publishing in London, England. A wide cross-section of the artist’s work is reproduced in the catalogue with impressive fidelity to the originals, and the accompanying texts are informative and well written.

The volume is a major reckoning of Wallace’s accomplishments. In this respect, it can be compared to Ian Wallace: A Literature of Images, which was published in 2008 by Sternberg Press in Berlin for an exhibition that travelled to Dusseldorf, Rotterdam, and Zurich. Unlike the Sternberg catalogue, however, the Vancouver Art Gallery/Black Dog publication pays close attention to Wallace’s long-standing engagement with Vancouver, where he has lived and worked since emerging as an artist in the 1960s. “Although Wallace’s work has been informed by wide-ranging cultural and art historical influences,” writes Daina Augaitis, who curated the show and edited the catalogue, “it has also been shaped by the fact that he developed his unique artistic outlook within the regional influence of Vancouver and British Columbia” (17). Of the ten contributors to the catalogue — Grant Arnold, Jeff Derksen, Diedrich Diederichsen, Stan Douglas, Jessica Morgan, Christine Poggi, Kathleen Ritter and William Wood as well as Augaitis and the artist himself — all but three are Vancouver-based. Wallace contributes no less than five essays to the volume. All but one has been previously published, but having them gathered in one place underscores Wallace’s status as an artist-scholar.

Wallace is an artist, teacher, art historian, and critic. The catalogue provides extensive documentation of his activities in all four categories. An annotated chronology, prepared by Grant Arnold, provides the fullest account to date on the artist’s biography and professional achievements. Readers are informed, for example, that Wallace entered the University of British Columbia in 1962 with the intention of studying English, but soon switched to Art History and graduated with a major in that field. He was hired to teach in the Art History department with no more than a B.A. degree in 1967 — unusual even at that time of social experimentation — though he had participated in exhibitions at the Seattle Art Museum, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the Victoria Art Gallery.

During the formative period of the late 1960s, Wallace began to produce vertical monochrome paintings with contrasting borders that sought to eliminate signs of brushwork and touch. The paintings related to research he was undertaking for a Master’s thesis on Piet Mondrian’s evolution from a landscape painter to a geometric abstractionist. Wallace keeps faith with the lessons he learned from Mondrian’s geometries to this day. A scholarly defence of key ingredients in his ongoing practice can be found in “Photography and the Monochrome: An Apologia, an Exegesis, an Interrogation,” an essay that was first published in Spain and which is reprinted in the catalogue. Beginning with the Poverty series from 1982, a significant turning point in the artist’s practice, and continuing up to his most recent work in the exhibition, the Hotel Rivoli series from late 2012, Wallace has combined screen-printed photographs with large, rectangular areas of monochromatic paint on canvas. The intention, he writes in the essay, is to combine “the liberating emptiness of the monochrome” with “the oppressive fullness of the world” that is represented in photography (66).

At UBC, Wallace collaborated with the artists Rodney Graham and Jeff Wall. Along with Ken Lum, who was later Wall’s student at Simon Fraser University, the four artists became internationally known in the 1980s as the Vancouver School. (The designation Vancouver School is now often used to describe a wider group of artists than the original constellation). They are respected not only for their rigorous analysis of photographic practices, often described as conceptual or post-conceptual, but also for their commitment to writing and pedagogy. Graham is the only one of the four not to have taught in a university, but like the others he has published widely; The System of Landor’s Cottage, a novel, and “Two Sources for a Possibly Fictional Element in Freud’s ‘Katharina’ Case Study,” an essay that draws links between Freud and Baudelaire, are two of his best-known publications.

The organization of the catalogue is structured around half-a-dozen key ideas. In keeping with the scholarly commitments of Wallace and the Vancouver School, the pedagogical imperative is indicated in the chapter headings: “The Monochrome,” “The Cinematic,” “The Text,” “The Street,” “The Museum,” and “The Studio.” The catalogue’s subtitle, At the Intersection of Painting and Photography, could just as easily have referred to literature and cinema, or museums and studios, instead of painting and photography. Or, with equal justice, it could have been called “At the Intersection of the Local and the International.” The chapters and the contributed essays repeatedly allude to the structuring ideas in terms of global as well as regional histories of modern art.

When Wallace began studying at UBC, Emily Carr was the dominant authority figure in regional culture. Her paintings of forest interiors, cirrus skies, sweeping beaches, and First Nations villages provided the province with a certified history of modernist art-making. As the catalogue under review successfully demonstrates, Wallace provides a certified counter-history of art-making in British Columbia. In place of Carr’s romantic vitalism, he offers forty-five years of art and writing that puts a premium on cool-headedness and conceptual rigour.

Ian Wallace: At the Intersection of Painting and Photography
Daina Augaitis, editor 
London, England: Black Dog Publishing and Vancouver: the Vancouver Art Gallery, 2012. 352 pp $59.95 cloth.