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Canadian David Milne’s Paint Box, Easel and Canvas (1933)

A few weeks ago in Vancouver, I had one of those "everything old is new again" moments. I was standing in front of a 1933 work by David Milne at Heffel auction house on South Granville street. The picture – which will be sold in Toronto this Thursday night, and which was first acquired by Vincent Massey in 1934 – was small and it depicted an empty canvas propped on its easel, a box of paints and what looks like a rocky outcropping overhanging a dark pool. It evokes the moment of pause before a beginning, and its mood of quiet expectancy and solitary reflection reminded me of something I had seen earlier in the day, in the retrospective of senior Vancouver photo-conceptualist Ian Wallace at the Vancouver Art Gallery. There, in Wallace's 1993 series in photolaminate and acrylic paint titled El Taller, I had observed the contemporary artist capturing the mechanics of his creative practice – the unstretched canvas in a heap on a table, the wooden supports, the staple gun and electrical cable, the stepladders – as well as some readied canvases leaning up against the wall. Separated by 60 years, both works are studies in blankness, sharing a kindred quiescence. I wondered what Wallace – a leading artist and astute observer of art history – would make of this antecedent.

"The painting looks like he is standing on a cliff," Wallace said of Milne's Paint Box, Easel and Canvas when I reached him by phone in his Vancouver studio this week. "It's as if he is looking down into an abyss. This is the painting that comes before the painting. It is about that moment: Now what am I going to do?" As with his own work, Wallace said, the painting has a reflexive quality: "What goes onto the canvas is an image of the making of the canvas."

In a way, formal composition becomes the subject, with the stepladders and easel commanding attention by ordering pictorial space. "I like the way the easel seems to hold up that part of the composition," Wallace said of the Milne. "It's as if the picture would sort of fall down without it."

Milne's choice of subject matter also cues us to consider the painting as a simple object of canvas and wood, before it bears the marks instigating its illusionistic transformation. It's this that makes the painting modern, Wallace says, a step ahead of most Canadian art of the day. He also pointed out the presence of the monochrome in the foreground of the Milne picture. "That is very early for a painting of a monochrome," he says, seeing a suggestion here of Alexander Rodchenko's radical series of single-colour paintings from 1921, Kasimir Malevich's slightly earlier white-on-white geometric abstractions, and one of his favourite Matisse paintings of a tall window opened to the night sky (French Window at Collioure, from 1913) that is – in essence – a picture of absence. Many of Wallace's works incorporate bars of monochrome recalling Matisse's experimental strategy.

Wallace noted, too, the intellectual tone of tentativeness in Milne's little study. "I have always sensed a certain modesty in Milne that I like," he said to me, "a certain reticence about the gesture. He works with a very dry brush, making very short strokes. It comes through as a sort of nervousness." His own work, he says, likewise eschews the sweeping romantic gesture. The wood-grain panel in the El Taller series offered, he said, "a way to make an abstract image that has texture, without involving the gesture of the hand. In my work," Wallace added, "that is the element that is always repressed."

The artist as intellectual, then, just a little bit allergic to the bodily release that paint-on-canvas can sometimes entail. Theirs is a quieter epiphany, the slightly detached cerebral pleasure of contemplation, savoured alone.

Ian Wallace: At the Intersection of Painting and Photography continues at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Feb. 24; David Milne's Paint Box, Easel and Canvas (1933) will be offered for sale at Heffel's evening auction of Fine Canadian Art on Thursday in Toronto.