In late 1988, shortly before he was named editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, William Thorsell raised a few cedar shingles with a published commentary in which he called Vancouver the Marilyn Monroe of Canadian cities – “lovely and lazy and famous and marginal.” The piece went on to itemize Vancouver’s sundry failures on the business, educational, architectural and media fronts. It also gave short shrift to its cultural life, claiming, for instance, that the “best-known visual art” coming out of B.C.’s primary urban hub “tends to romantic landscapes in characteristic obeisance to nature.”
Certainly, over the decades there’s been no lack of such art from the likes and acolytes of Emily Carr and W.P. Weston, Walter Phillips, E.J. Hughes and Toni Onley, nor its recognition across Canada, but internationally Vancouver has long been recognized as one happening town when it comes to contemporary art. Mention, say, Hughes, Bill Reid or even Jack Shadbolt to an art curator in Stuttgart and you’ll probably get a quizzical look. But slip Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Ken Lum or Rodney Graham – Vancouverites all – into the conversation and you’re virtually guaranteed a quick ja!
Another candidate for likely recognition is Ian Hugh Wallace, at 69 the acknowledged godfather of what’s often called the West Coast school of photoconceptualism. As creator, teacher, analyst, mentor, exemplar, his influence in art-making and art-thinking has spanned more than 40 years, prompting the Vancouver Art Gallery, host of the artist’s first solo exhibition in 1979, to recently mount a survey show of his vast and varied output – a show that took up two floors, featured some 200 works, ran for four months and served as the occasion for the publication of this slab of a monograph/catalogue.
Slab may seem pejorative, but how else to describe a thing weighing two kilograms? Moreover, it’s a noun Wallace himself has used to describe his now-famous hybrids – what he calls “a form of montage or collage” – wherein a recognizable photo is laminated to a canvas painted in monochromatic or scrubbly acrylic. Over the decades, Wallace has spun out and off seemingly infinite variations of this “dialogue between painting and photography.” Check out At the Crosswalk, an ongoing series originating in the late 1980s, with each work positioning a photographed, inward-facing male opposite an inward-facing female, each person separated by two rectangles of solid colour. Also representative is Clayoquot Protest, a suite of nine hybrids, made in 1993-1995, in which Wallace interrupts photographs of placard-carrying demonstrators with rectangles of scored colour.
As avant-gardists go, Wallace actually is something of a rear-guardist – a description he readily subscribes to in one of the five essays he contributes to At the Intersection. Painting, to his eyes and mind, “remains the measure of legitimation for all other forms of art,” with abstract painting and its refusal of representation – holy modernism! – the sine qua non or logical end-point of the centuries-long enterprise. By the same token, the photographic image is prized for its “prosaic referential representational power.” With Wallace, then, the talk isn’t so much about abandoning a method, medium or style as interrogating it, extending it, working the juxtapositions.
While At the Intersection of Painting and Sculpture is undeniably a handsome volume and probably the best one-stop shop for getting a handle on Wallace, no one’s going to call its contents beautiful. Interesting, yes, but not beautiful like a book of John Singer Sargent portraits is beautiful or a monograph of Marilyn Monroe photographs. The texts, too (by Wallace and various critics, curators and scholars) are freighted with the theory-laden aperçus of contemporary art-speak. “Sociolect,” anyone? “An open archive for the allegorical sensibility”? “The contingency of the motive”?
Of course, Wallace wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’s not a fine artist with all the bravura effects and flourishes of rhetoric implied by that term. While you can find a snow-covered mountain or a cove of salt water, among other West Coast signifiers, in a Wallace assemblage, they’re not so much the point of the image as part of it. If, as some critics have observed, a Michael Snow work is a mechanism for seeing, an Ian Wallace, for all the seeming simplicity of its presentation, is a mechanism for thinking. Indeed, full-blooded conceptualist that Wallace is, it’s the thought that counts.
James Adams is a senior arts writer for The Globe and Mail.