It’s a little-known fact that Ian Wallace, one of Canada’s most important and influential visual artists, once wrote film reviews for the Georgia Straight. It was 1971, a year before he started teaching art history at what was then the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University), and the modest fee—$25 per review—helped sustain him during the early years of his art-making career. “My rent at the time was $75 a month,” he recalls with a laugh. Critiquing, say, Death in Venice could account for a fair portion of that.
Wallace, who is speaking with the Straight in an empty fourth-floor office at the Vancouver Art Gallery, is about to be honoured with a huge retrospective exhibition. Opening at the VAG on Saturday (October 27), it is composed of more than 200 works installed over two floors. The art on view ranges from his abstract paintings, minimalist sculptures, and textual collages of the 1960s through his conceptual street photographs, slide projections, and videos of the 1970s, to the highly contemplative combinations of photographs and monochrome paintings on canvas that have characterized his practice since the mid 1980s.
Wallace is also the subject of a 352-page hardcover catalogue, one of the most substantial monographs the VAG has ever produced. Both the show and the book (a joint venture with Black Dog Publishing in London, England) are organized around the sites, themes, and strategies that recur in his work, such as the street, the museum, and the studio. Both show and book reveal this senior artist’s prolific commitment to his chosen forms of expression. “I really am focused on the intersection of photography and painting,” he says. “I find that’s the core or the substance of the dialogue that I like to play with.”
Speaking later from her office by phone, VAG chief curator Daina Augaitis enthuses about Wallace’s stellar place in this city’s recent art history. “In the ’70s and ’80s, he was an influential part of what was called ‘photo-conceptualism’ as it evolved in Vancouver.” In addition to his own art-making, she adds, “he was also involved in writing, curating, teaching, and supporting other artists.” Since the mid-’80s, she notes, he has been “internationally recognized for working at the junction of painting and photography”.
Still, given Wallace’s keen interest in film and film history—he has long acknowledged the impact of cinéma verité on his photographic style and has directly quoted the works of European directors Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Roberto Rossellini in an ongoing series of photo-paintings titled Masculin/Féminin—it is not entirely surprising that his art and his life have taken a cinematic turn or two. In that transitional year, 1971, he applied to study at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and hitchhiked there from Vancouver for an admission interview, recording his trip on a borrowed 16mm-film camera. Ultimately, however, he relinquished the idea of pursuing a filmmaking career.
“I saw Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard in ’61, when I was in high school,” Wallace says. “It was shot for a ridiculously small amount of money. My dream was ‘If he could do that, then I could do that.’ But I never have been able to do it—just don’t have the capabilities.”
Nevertheless, the impact of Godard and his peers has persisted in Wallace’s acclaimed visual-art practice. “The spirit of that filmmaking—the bringing of personal stories and a philosophical view of contemporary life into the film as an artwork—was what interested me,” he remarks. “And that’s when I worked in photography, photo-conceptualism, and saw the potential of bringing a certain kind of narrativity into the domain of abstract art and conceptual art and minimalist art.”
Not only did Wallace incorporate cinéma verité techniques and aesthetics into his art, combining documentary and narrative elements, realism and artifice, but he also established a cinematically grand scale for his photographs. An early example is La Mélancolie de la rue, a three-panel panorama of hand-tinted silver-gelatin prints showing unstaged street scenes, urban and suburban, and a seaside landscape dominated by what looks like a derelict cannery. Made in 1973, the triptych has an overall length of 4.76 metres, a breakthrough for the time.
“Ian was one of the first artists anywhere to make such large photo works,” Augaitis observes, also citing 1975’s Attack on Literature I & II (each more than 10 metres long) and 1979’s Lookout (with its 12 photo-panels that total nearly 15 metres). “Who else was making photographs on this scale at the time?”
In the exhibition catalogue, Augaitis describes how La Mélancolie addresses and in a sense reiterates critical ideas about montage in film, including the ways in which the cumulative meaning “is greater than the inherent meaning of each individual photograph”.
As for that film-studies road not taken, Wallace says, “I’m happy doing what I’m doing.”
Still, he’s being unkind to himself when he says he doesn’t have the “capabilities” to be a filmmaker. He does. He’s been creating cinematic works for decades.
Ian Wallace: At the Intersection of Painting and Photography is at the Vancouver Art Gallery from Saturday (October 27) to February 24, 2013.