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VISUAL ART

Ian Wallace: The artist as teacher, mentor, instigator Add to ...

The work is almost 20 years old but here, now, in the midst of anti-pipeline protests across British Columbia this week, the issue feels so very contemporary. The work is Clayoquot Protest (August 9, 1993), Ian Wallace’s seminal panoramic piece, installed in its entirety (it isn’t always) at the Vancouver Art Gallery, as part of a comprehensive retrospective, Ian Wallace: At the Intersection of Painting and Photography, which opened Saturday.

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This installation is very much about this place, as is Wallace. He travels, exhibits and works internationally, but he is inextricably associated with B.C., where he grew up and where he continues to make most of his work.

Wallace is a central figure in the internationally renowned photoconceptualism movement that has developed here, sometimes referred to as the Vancouver School. He has been strongly influential in its creation and evolution, not just as an artist but as a teacher and mentor to artists such as Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas and Ken Lum.

“Many of the most significant artists in Vancouver have studied with Ian and come in contact with his approach to art history,” says Douglas. “So he’s had a huge influence on the scene in Vancouver.”

“I learned a lot from him, probably more from him than anyone else, but he has always been remarkably modest about his pedagogic mentoring to so many,” offers Lum.

“I was there at the beginning and definitely one of the instigators, the theorist,” said Wallace this week during an interview at the VAG, as the exhibition was being installed. “I definitely, as an art historian, saw the importance of [the movement] from the beginning, locally and internationally – that this is a direction we can move in and actually make a mark, do something that will mean something in terms of constructing our local history.”

Wallace, now 69, studied at the University of British Columbia, and later taught at UBC and the Vancouver School of Art, now the Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Evident in his work: a keen interest in poetry and film (he interviewed for a spot studying at the American Film Institute in 1971, but ultimately gave up on the idea, unable to afford it).

His earliest work in this exhibition is a photograph of the collapsed Second Narrows Bridge, Disaster (June 17, 1958), shot when he was 14. The survey also includes the painting chosen by Yves Gaucher for the controversial 1967 juried exhibition at the VAG (controversial because only nine B.C.-based artists were selected for the show). Remote was the first work Wallace sold (for $300) and it is installed steps away from work created so recently that “I think the paint on it was still dripping as we put it on the walls,” jokes Kathleen Ritter, the VAG associate curator who worked on the exhibition and wrote an essay for the catalogue.

These new works, Wallace’s Molinari series (featuring photographs taken in the Montreal studio of deceased artist Guido Molinari), were completed just this month, and are signature Wallace: monochrome painting paired with photography; geometric lines; classical references; the studio setting; an ode to another artist.

It would take volumes to examine the work created in Wallace’s almost 50-year career, or even just the 200-plus works in this exhibition (and indeed there is a back-breaking catalogue which accompanies the show). Each work tells a number of stories; some are Wallace’s, but – and this is very important to him – other narratives are created by the viewer encountering the work.

Take Clayoquot Protest. This is a large-scale installation, both cinematic and deliberately reminiscent of history painting. There are nine panels: three wide-shot panoramic photographs with fragments extracted and highlighted on separate panels. The monumentalized photographs are juxtaposed with ink monoprints on sheets of plywood. Given the subject matter, you can’t help but think of the wood’s source.

On sabbatical and living in Paris in 1993, Wallace was thinking very seriously about pursuing his interest in history painting by creating a large-scale work that would speak to a contemporary issue with long-term resonance.

“I wanted to do a work that made a major statement about contemporary history,” says Wallace. “I wanted to do something … that I would call my history painting.”

Dominating the news at the time were the Oslo Accords, agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization meant to bring peace to the region. Wallace began to investigate this idea and even flew to New York and set up in the media pit at the United Nantions building with news crews to photograph PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

But ultimately, Wallace decided, it was the wrong story for him to tell.

“I thought, oh, this isn’t close to my personal history,” says Wallace. “I’d never been to Israel, for instance. I’m not on the inside of that; I’d be talking about somebody else’s history. … The question about conviction and authenticity is important, because it’s a little too easy to borrow other people’s histories to make a major statement.”

So he turned his attention to the west coast of Vancouver Island, where the Clayoquot Sound protests were escalating, drawing thousands of people that summer to block the logging road and protect old growth forest, knowing they risked arrest.

Wallace returned to Vancouver, found out when the next major protest was scheduled (August 9), enlisted the help of a friend and camped overnight at a spot that would give them a panoramic view of whatever went down.

That day, some 250 people were arrested, but Wallace’s work documents the peaceful sit-in that preceded the mayhem. Wallace later read in the International Herald Tribune (the article, blown up and silk screened, is installed here) that 44 of the protestors received jail sentences. One of them, Wallace reveals, was his favourite high school teacher, who had encouraged Wallace to write poetry.

Wallace moves around the gallery where Clayoquot Protest is installed, pointing out characters he has wondered about: a seated woman looking anxious about what’s ahead; a young, lumber-jacketed couple, maybe beginning a romance; an older man, possibly a university professor, stressing out over whether he will make it to the first day of class or be spending it in a jail cell.

“Anyway,” says Wallace, “there’s a story behind everything.”

He likes to tell these stories, and throughout the show there is evidence of his commitment to demystifying the process. There’s a sculpture created from personal notes and letters (including a handwritten slag of an art critic in correspondence with the Art Gallery of Ontario); the contact sheets and pencil tracings for his monumental work Lookout; and studies for works such as My Heroes in the Street and At the Crosswalk.

“I’m interested in all stages of the process from the earliest scribble to the final piece,” he says.

At Work 1983 was a playful response to some push-back Wallace received for demanding his students read serious art criticism, history and theory. “The perception of me, especially among the people who were not happy about having to do that kind of work, was that I was too intellectual,” he says. “I wasn’t a real artist, right? I was a wannabe. That was a little bit of the perception: Here’s the art historian who wants to be an artist.”

For the performance, which was documented in a variety of ways, Wallace spent an hour every night over two weeks, between midnight and 1 a.m., sitting at a desk in the window of the Or Gallery, working – often reading Soren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony. Outside, people leaving the bars at that time of night would gawk and often laugh, he recalls. But Wallace was the author of the wry joke, not the butt of it.

In 2008, Wallace restaged the work, referencing both the original as well as In the Studio 1984, replacing 1984’s typewriter with a laptop.

He’s clearly having fun, but these works speak to his many serious influences, and the movement he has helped shape – in part because of his attention to what came before him.

“He has a way of speaking about his work with a kind of intellectual rigour and precision, and art historical rigour as well,” says Ritter. “He understands how his work functions in the context of a longer history of art. And I think through his presence as an artist, then, it has created this particular environment and this scene that we have in Vancouver, where artists are very rigorous about the way that they talk about their work. They really look to contemporary and art historical references and they talk about it unapologetically in intellectual terms. And I think that’s what Vancouver has become known for. And I think that’s what Ian’s work has been recognized for internationally.”

IAN WALLACE’S ARTIST FAMILY TREE

In 1955, a young Ian Wallace – he would have been 12 years old – encounters and is struck by a Gordon Smith abstraction in the window of West Vancouver’s pioneering New Design Gallery.

Wallace later studies art history at UBC; teachers include Iain Baxter and B.C. Binning.

Binning is a reader on Wallace’s Master’s thesis on Piet Mondrian, and later hires Wallace to teach modern art history at UBC.

Wallace’s students at UBC include Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham; his classes were audited by Dennis Wheeler. While Wallace was influential as a teacher, he was also strongly influenced by his students. The cross-pollination will help create a vibrant and internationally influential Vancouver art scene.

Wallace is the principal reader of Wall’s thesis, on Berlin Dada.

Wall goes on to teach at SFU. Ken Lum, studying biological sciences, takes an art history course with Wall and changes career paths.

Wallace squats for some time in artist Tom Burrows’s shack on the mudflats in North Vancouver. An image of the house will later appear in Wallace’s seminal triptych La Mélancolie de la rue.

At the Vancouver School of Art (today the Emily Carr University of Art + Design), Wallace’s students include Roy Arden and Stan Douglas.

Wallace hires Wall to organize a series of lunchtime film screenings at VSA.

At VSA, Wallace, as part of his Art Now classes, creates what will become a highly influential program bringing in visiting artists such as Laurie Anderson and Dan Graham. Douglas audits the class.

One-time students, now collaborators and friends, pop up in many of Wallace’s works, including the My Heroes in the Street series and Lookout.

At the 49th Parallel Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art in New York in 1985, Wallace curates an exhibition of work by Graham, Lum, Wall and himself. The group will later be identified as the original members of the so-called Vancouver School. In 1992, they exhibit together again at the Centre d’art Santa Monica in Barcelona.

In fromshangri-la to shangri-la, a site-specific 2010 installation in downtown Vancouver, Lum references Burrows’s mudflats shack. The work was re-installed this year in North Vancouver.

By the time he retires from Emily Carr in 1998, Wallace has taught and mentored a long list of emerging artists, including Damian Moppett, Ron Terada and Steven Shearer. Geoffrey Farmer and Brian Jungen also studied at the school during that period, “when Ian’s presence was deeply felt there,” offers Catriona Jeffries, the Vancouver gallerist who represents Wallace, Farmer, Jungen, Moppett and Terada.

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