BY Robert Linsley in Reviews | 13 APR 13
Featured in
Issue 154

Ian Wallace

BY Robert Linsley in Reviews | 13 APR 13

Ian Wallace, At the Crosswalk VIII, 2011, photolaminate and acrylic on canvas, 2.4 × 4.9 m

The Vancouver Art Gallery recently mounted the most comprehensive survey to date of the work of Ian Wallace. Wallace’s historical importance lies in the fact that he was one of the very first artists to put large-scale photographs in the place of painting. This has been an influential move, the significance of which is only partly understood today. Like his senior Vancouver colleagues, Wallace is steeped in the Modernist/Symbolist tradition, in the ideas of Charles Baudelaire and, particularly to him, Stéphane Mallarmé.

The catalogue for the show has contributions from several distinguished writers, each covering one aspect of Wallace’s work, and for each category the artist himself has either written a short text or given an interview. His thoughts include reflections on art current at the time, on his situation in Vancouver as well as responses to general philosophical problems. The provinciality of the place was important because it meant that his ambitions were not necessarily for ‘success’ in the conventional sense, but to make significant art.

The exhibition was subtitled ‘At the Intersection of Painting and Photography’, to which could have been added ‘The Book’. Wallace has been a pioneer of a ‘literature of images’, as he refers to it. Since the mid-1980s he has followed a consistent strategy in which photos are laminated on canvases painted with rectangles of colour. Organized in three broad categories of studio, museum and street, these works appeared in the show as a tour de force of book design, turning entire galleries into page layouts. The composition of the image often works so well with the framing design of the canvas that one is startled by the sequence of Wallace’s decisions. It’s as if the quintessential modern experience of shock has been fully integrated with the operations of taste; these works are like a series of soft blows to the sensorium.

Wallace understands that in modernity the work is its own meaning, and that beyond meaning lies what the work really is. It’s not surprising that he felt the need to test his practice at a site of real social conflict, as in the ‘Clayoquot Protest’ series (1995). The eponymous event was an important act of mass civil disobedience by Canadian environmentalists trying to stop the logging of old growth forests, and Wallace was there with his cameras to document the event. Looking at these works, we feel that the social detachment of the Modernist lies behind the role of documentarian, yet further behind that lies the truth that Modernism is the only valid political stance, that art is more than a witness of suffering and violence, but the best alternative to them. Utopia is an image after all.

These thoughts bring us close to the productive heart of the last 20 years of Wallace’s art: the series titled ‘Poverty’, began in 1980 and continued intermittently for almost a decade. This body of work is the site of Wallace’s most intense technical experimentation. It began as a short film in which some of his friends impersonated derelicts in an abandoned industrial area of Vancouver. The film provided stills that were then used in a number of different contexts, most importantly as silkscreens on monochrome painted canvases, providing the prototype for the later laminated photo pieces. As the catalogue documents, this work has been consistently misunderstood and criticized for all the wrong reasons. It comprises an ultra-sophisticated and historically knowing masque, one which brings destitution into proximity with the pastoral idyll.

Following Baudelaire’s claim for the ‘heroism of modern life’, in the late 1980s Wallace made a series of street photos of his friends titled ‘My Heroes in the Street’. I was one of the models in the work’s first iteration, and remember its Vancouver exhibition well. Photos in this ongoing group have provided material for many large-scale canvases since. Seeing the work at the Vancouver Art Gallery, I saw Wallace’s artist models as I hadn’t before: tense, self-conscious and, above all, carefully dressed. They are all flâneurs, bearers of modern style in a provincial setting. It’s clear to me now that the designation of ‘heroes’ is not just an expression of Wallace’s personal admiration, which is how he put it back in the day, but that they carry their sensibility through the indifferent streets with bravery and care. I don’t know who all the models are, but according to one reviewer the most recent are art collectors. Their body language is inexpressive, and though their clothes may be carefully chosen there is not the same importance resting on the choice. Flat factuality has its say. But what is most striking about the earlier images is how Wallace’s works have delivered up their burden of meaning over time, and that his very simple and straightforward methods have been adequate to the atmosphere, the feeling and the sensibility of his world.