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Tony Emery

Ian Wallace at the Vancouver Art Gallery
September 21 - October 21 [1979]

artscanada #224/225, Dec. / Jan. 1979-80
[ 879 words ]


The career of Ian Wallace, instructor in art history at The Emily Carr College of Art in Vancouver, gives the lie to the old gibe: 'He who can does; he who cannot, teaches.' As a painter he has explored sources as varied as Morandi and Reinhardt, but he has also been active in other modes and media. At times he has shown an active political concern, at other times his work has verged on academic pastiche, but always it has revealed a passionately engaged sensibility and an eagerness to come to grips with the intellectual underpinnings of the more arcane art movements of the twentieth century.

He is not, of course, alone in this. The generation that graduated from school in the 1960s has ransacked a number of bags in search of a helpful system or construct: Marxism and Maoism, Zen, phenomenology and Wittgenstein are a few that spring readily to mind. Intellectual vogues seem to spring up in university graduate schools, spreading rapidly from philosophers, psychologists or political scientists to art historians and artists. This exchange is a corollary of the emergence of the university art department as the cradle of an ever-increasing number of artists.

The latest banner to which young linguists and artists have been drawn in significant numbers is that of semiotic theory, to use C. S. Peirce's terminology, or semiology, as its Swiss co-founder, Ferdinand de Saussure, preferred to call it. Although it is more than sixty years since de Saussure's Cours de linguistique générale was first published, and the theory has been influential among linguists in the United States, the USSR and Czechoslovakia, it is the last decade [the 70s] that has seen a great upwelling of interest in sign theory among the avant-garde in the visual and performing arts.

This preamble is necessary, because the two works exhibited by Ian Wallace at the Vancouver Art Gallery are evidence of his continued interest in this thorny field of enquiry. For the past half-dozen years Wallace's chief area of concern has been photographic. The two recent works, Lookout and Image / text are both a considerable size and comprise hand-tinted photographic images enlarged and mounted on panels.

The first to catch your eye is a panorama nearly forty-eight feet long  — Lookout  —  consisting of a dozen panels. On this long ribbon, perhaps three feet high, stretches a continuous ground of field and forest against which the figures of men and women, singly and in groups, are posed. The figures, evidently photographed separately and collaged onto the ground, show Wallace's usual interesting truncations and foreshortenings; the hues are garish, the poses are 'stagy ', but yield no consistent meaning, although we feel that if the frozen tableaux were to thaw into motion some decipherable code, like that of ballet, would become apparent. One is reminded of Gauguin's D'ou venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou allons-nous?; and of giant, Calgary gaudy movie billboards; but the format and the setting preclude any attempt to see the work as a whole, and it is presumably the artist's intention that the panorama be read sequentially, a fragment at a time. The work on the opposite wall, Image / text, is also too large to be brought into the focus of a single gaze. Six large panels, all contiguous, are arranged in two horizontal rows of three, making a rectangle about nine feet high by eighteen wide. Three panels bear 'blowups' of rather smudgy typed text arranged like free verse, for example: 'theory of an idea / of construction ... / those places in which thought occurred ... / library / boudoir / architect / mistress / or armchair / or a situation / a thought retrieved from the space of its origin.'

The panels show variously an empty room with a window and roller-blind, an artist's workroom with table, and on the wall a dimly discernible poster advertising an exhibition entitled L'Irlande en 1913. The figure of a young Irish peasant woman taken from this poster is enlarged to fill one of the panels. Another shows bookshelves, evidently the artist's own, with books whose titles remind us of some of Wallace's concerns: art history, film linguistics and politics.

The text here offers more clues to what is 'signified' by the 'signifiers' than are to be collected from the other work. One meaning which emerges is the artist's Romantic absorption with himself, his thoughts, his feelings, and this interpretation draws support from Wallace's strenuous avant-gardism, also a Romantic position, and his search for an austere system which might serve as an astringent discipline.

It is not the critic's place to tell the artist what he should do, but I for one would be interested to see what would result if Wallace were to turn from his present intellectualized and cerebral pursuits and follow his Romantic bent in a film or video format. He gives evidence of a greater talent in this direction, as indicated by the two videotapes included in the show, than that possessed by many filmmakers and it would be a tragedy not to see it indulged.


artscanada #224/225, Dec. / Jan. 1979-80


Text: © Tony Emery. All rights reserved.

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