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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.

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.

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