PRINT February 1979

Semiology, Sensuousness and Ian Wallace

I FIND THAT I no longer believe in semiology. Saussure’s prophecy of a general science of signs sounds fine in the middle of his book on linguistics. The trouble is, he then went ahead and set up a structure to deal with language that has so prejudiced the undertaking that it could never really fit anything else. With regard to visual images, particularly, everything I have read under that rubric either has very little to do with semiology as Saussure conceived it, or else it falsifies the sense of films, photographs, pictures, drawings, statues, whatever, by treating them as a system of hieroglyphs.

The crux of the issue is that semiology is not equipped to cope with continuity. It conceives meaning as residing in distinct “signifiers” that are strung together while respecting their own boundaries. Ironically, Roland Barthes, in his much ballyhooed “Third Meaning” essay, finds himself able to identify his sense of the “filmic” more readily in relation to stills than to the film, as film, in its moving form: the continuity of the motion picture eludes his tools of analysis. When Barthes gets down to the still image he begins with, “All I can learn from the setting, the costumes the characters, their relationships . . .” A photograph, however, whether it is taken from a movie or anywhere else, is not primarily a collection of the things depicted in it, but the varying density of gray tone across the surface of the print. The only absolute boundary is the arbitrary one of the edge of the print itself. Any meaning beyond the recognition of the pattern of gray depends on an interpretive articulation by the viewer that causes the things Roland Barthes lists to emerge out of the continuous surface of the image.

Perhaps the whole problem with the “third meaning” theory is that the first meaning (what Barthes calls information) needs to be shunted down to number two, because it already admits a level of inference. In its place at the head of the list there would have to be the whole process by which gray marks on a piece of paper transform themselves into people and objects with an intensity of evocation so persuasive that we can sometimes respond as if we were present in front of the things themselves. This metamorphosis is really very strange, because, when you hold a piece of paper (even one with gray marks on it) up beside, say, a Russian costume, the one does not appear to be very much like the other. It is precisely because of the distance this first phase of photographic meaning carries us that it admits so vast a range of subtle—and also some really quite obvious—pressures on our grasp of the scene that emerges.

I am not quite sure where all this leaves Barthes’ “third meaning.” What does strike me is that, while Barthes is pursuing this ineffable will-o’-the-wisp that he vaguely intuits in a handful of Eisenstein stills, he misses an area of meaning broader and more fundamental than any he has treated so far and which applies to every photograph, and, by extension, to every picture, statue, drawing and film, that has ever been made. Roland Barthes is very much Jasper Johns’ critic who has a mouth where his eyes ought to be. Ian Wallace, for whom Barthes’ “The Third Meaning” was very important, is Jasper Johns’ critic turned artist; but in his case enough original tissue survives to offset word-vision with a level of sensuous experience that can intensify into a heady, languid, visual romanticism. At times the two aspects are so extreme that his art needs the counterweight of each to balance the excesses of the other.

Wallace came to art as an art history student. Born in England, he grew up in Canada and moved to the West Coast in 1952. He now teaches art history at the Vancouver School of Art. Along the way there was a brief stint as a critic for the Vancouver Sun. As an artist he has been an earthworker, Minimal sculptor, political propagandist and painter before settling on his present line of photographic work. Such diversity may indicate an alert and inquiring mind, but it is also the token of an anything-goes, West-Coast sensibility that marks Ian Wallace’s esthetic kinship with the circle of Ian Baxter’s N.E. Thing Co. At one stage he was very taken with the art of Ad Reinhardt, but the result was two all-yellow canvases set diagonally to each other (it is difficult to imagine anything more calculated to confirm West-Coast stereotypes than a yellow Ad Reinhardt).

Summer Script of 1973 to 1974 was the first of Wallace’s large-scale photo sequences, and it defines the territory of his mature work more completely than any other piece. Significantly, it had begun as a film, in collaboration with another Vancouver artist, Jeff Wall, but the film just refused to pan out. Wallace still toys with the idea of making a film, but, in true Barthian fashion, his attempts always collapse into a sequence of stills. The Summer Script film was to have been about marriage: a group of people on their way to a wedding sit and chat round a table in a garden. There were personal overtones for the people involved, but basically the conversation was to be a vehicle for Jeff Wall’s analysis of psycho-social processes. The project came to grief because the participants had difficulty making it sound natural. In the trial stage, they used videotape. This formed the basis for the first half of Ian Wallace’s piece, six large panels photographed directly from the black-and-white image on the monitor, and then hand-tinted afterwards. The panels were intended to be set up side by side, with edges touching, in the corner of a room, three on each wall.

The first two panels have two figures only, a man and a woman. As the man glances toward the woman something above distracts her attention. When she turns toward him, he is looking away. In the background of the next shot, a third figure, Ian Wallace himself, appears standing: his presence is to be equated with patterns of interference in the video image that develop as we turn the corner. The final frame has both seated figures looking to the right so that their lines of gaze set up a partial symmetry, diagonally across the corner of the gallery, with the glance of the man at the left of the first photograph.

All this, despite the characteristic low-definition quality of the video medium—which becomes more noticeable as the image enlarges to 4 by 6 feet—is very clear. The movements of the heads are quite decisive enough to be equated with respectable semiological “signifiers.” They look very poignant. Create an induced narrative by putting them side by side, and it is easy enough for the viewer to read in his own soap opera of tired romance and the eternal triangle. But even on that level the meaning is uncertain. The first photograph has the heroine oblivious for her lover’s attentions—but look at the way this works out within the architecture of the corner: the final image of her head brings her gaze in line with his, leaping a void of a space that is bigger than their space, and visually transcending the turmoil of the intervening narrative strife. Is it really so clear that the man’s gaze, when we allow it to extend across the real space of the room, is directed at the woman and not at his own image staring back from the left of that same final photograph? Does her upward glance in the first frame symbolize a higher brand of love while he looks through the reality of her devotion at the externalized projection of his own narcissism (the continuing ripples of interference in the final image do indeed make it look like a reflecting surface of water)?

The fact is: the sequencing of images and gestures may create an innuendo of drama, but does not spell out a plot. Between the poignancy of gesture and the ambiguities of the low-definition image there develops a heady summer sexuality that pervades the whole surface of the print, the whole length of the wall and the whole space of the room. Specific meaning is not communicated, but uncertainty intensifies the romanticism of it all.

In a second sequence of six frames, intended for the opposite corner of the same room, the nonplot thickens. On a table with a red checkered tablecloth, set in another garden (or perhaps the same one) the script itself is spread out, with photographs from the sequence we have just seen, along with other photographs. A woman’s hands entering from the left turn the pages of the book and rummage through the photographs. From time to time the woman drinks from a glass. A martini bottle is half-hidden by a vase of flowers. A second glass and an empty chair indicate a second presence that never materializes.

In reality the script and its illustrations were a further stage in that film Wall and Wallace never made, but the parallel of the first and second sequence is established coherently enough in its own terms. The story (whatever it was) is articulated and further distanced by its translation into typescript, although we still cannot read enough to make sense. The heady prevailing atmosphere is rationalized by the literal intoxication of alcohol. For a more specific reading I have to rely on Ian Wallace’s explanations.

The rose, apart from its romantic connotation, was a personal symbol of Wallace’s own liberation from the latent puritanism of his earlier work. The photograph in the woman’s hands, at the left of the first panel, shows a shot we have not previously seen from the videotape, a close-up of the woman powdering her face. Wallace was interested in the cosmetic quality of the film, the artifice which is echoed on yet another level by the tinting of the photographs themselves. At the right of this same panel is yet a further still from the tape, one in which the woman’s hand rests on a copy of Jean Mitry’s Histoire du cinema. In the film as planned the discussion was to have centered on an illustration in that book, showing a scene from Jean Esptein’s 1924 film Coeur Fidele: a man looking at the neck of his lover (a specifically erotic attention, for Wallace).

The videotape was contrived to incorporate a mock-up of this incident, which appears as a still on the table in another panel from the second sequence. The totality encompassed a bewildering structure of overlays of photographs of things, photographs of photographs from videotapes, photographs of scripts with photographs of videotapes and photographs of books with photographs from films. Everything is cross-referenced to everything else, to the historical precedent of an “impressionist” film, to Ian Wallace’s formulation of his own esthetic position, to the accidents of the work’s own production and to the real life relationships of the performers in the videotape. The placing of hands to direct the attention serves only to complicate the symbolism: hand on table (the theatre of discourse), hand on photograph (overview of the action), hand on glass of wine (symbolized level of pleasure of the garden), hand on face (the sensuality of flesh on flesh) and hand on text (condensation of experience into abstraction).

This last is a key point around which a rationale begins to take form. Wallace has been much influenced by writers like Jacques Lacan who attempt to effect a union of linguistics and psychoanalysis. According to Lacan the unconscious is “structured as a language,” or, more strongly, the “material of the unconscious is language.” Wallace, convinced that our lives are constructed from an imaginary text, a condensation of experience, points to Mallarmé in asserting that the text is the space of the page as well as the words, but in treating the image as a text he imposes the structure of language upon it: “the photograph as text abstracts and redirects experience.” Following Lacan, however, the basis of language emerges out of sexual relationships; the phallus is the primal symbol of exchange. Hence the gymnastics of Wallace’s stance would read not as a neutral tightrope walk between intellect and emotion so much as pan-libidinal acrobatics (like making love in a hammock standing up), particularly if one allows that the hammock is slung sufficiently high to present the prospect of a fall as an absolute negation. My sense of The Summer Script is primarily of a mood of giddy sensuous intoxication that is continuous and consistent throughout both sequences. As I attempt to bring the subject into focus, it crumbles into fragments and, ultimately, lapses into solipsism. The second sequence violates the neutrality of the camera’s presence in the first. The action cannot be referred to an external reality independent of the fact of its being observed. Behind the facade of staged gesture there is: absolutely nothing.

A sense of profusion of incident, of ornament and of tender human emotion qualifying a void is exactly what I might expect from the author of a yellow Reinhardt. Blankness, important throughout Ian Wallace’s work, is physically exemplified in the next photographic series, An Attack on Literature, 1977. A man (symbolically, the artist) casts his shadow onto a typewriter, trying to spoof it into writing the text for itself, yet it only spews out blank pages. A woman (his muse) joins in, to no avail. Although a second woman (literature) appears, the blank pages continue to fly. She shields her eyes with her hand, but in the last image is able to raise it away from her face, as if transcending oppression. The piece ends on a note of light, as blank paper fills the right of the image. There is a general progression within the assembled sequence from dark at the top left to light at the bottom right. This work was considered a response to the strictures of modernist criticism as regards literary content. Wallace seems to reach three different conclusions simultaneously. The artist, his two female assistants and the self-operating typewriter never do manage to persuade words to appear on the flying sheets of paper. On that level, that may be the end of it, but the fact is that the photographs themselves do portray these three characters. So there is a plot, and even a happy ending. Through it all, the visual evidence of the large prints on the gallery wall is that Wallace very much wanted to emulate the cool formal disinterestedness of modernist painting. Where does that leave us?

The Constructor, of 1976, has two men and a woman composed centrifugally around a central void. The format changes to eight vertical panels, all variants on the same theme. The pole held by the man at the right in some frames is a symbol of action, but its position makes it explicitly phallic. One man towers menacingly above the other, but their attitudes read incongruously, as if they responded to different gravitational fields, an effect that was contrived by tipping the chair on which the higher figure was standing so as to throw him off balance. This sense of disunity, in turn, is accentuated by tinting the photograph with strong flat colors, to a result that is somewhat stark, perhaps even sour. Disunity has its emotive aspects, but sensuousness and sensuality have been pulled back to the level of content (the woman in red in the background); in some later series on a smaller scale they reemerge as the stated subject.

In Flagrante Delicto from 1977 apprehends a couple in a car. Two series under the general title of “Hypnertomachia” (“The strife of love in a dream”) show, in one case, a woman in Chinese dress rushing and raging at a fire, and, in the other, a woman in a black coat over light-colored slacks turning apprehensively toward an unseen staircase where a man and woman pause to pick something up as they descend. Both works develop from standard Freudian symbols, the fire itself and the phallic forms of the logs, plus the staircase, with its innuendo of rhythmical body movements as the couple descend. In each instance the woman’s response is negative—violently so in The Fire. In the final shot of The Staircase she just moves away.

The Fire employs actual color photographs, which emphasize a sense of naturalism, but this is countered by the way one image is evidently constructed by reversing the negative used for another. The Staircase is very sparsely tinted. The four frames employ gesture (albeit to an unstated purpose) with the decisiveness of a comic strip. I am reminded of the standard road safety instruction that school children are given in England: “Look right, look left, look right again, and proceed if the road is clear.” In the first three shots the woman’s right hand presses against the wall denoting her anchorage to the spot. In the last shot it drops into her coat pocket. Her head turns back to the left but the direction of her feet and her pointing left hand describe an imminent movement. In this final panel the woman’s figure assumes an Egyptian frontality, head in profile, chest front view, legs and arms seen from the side. Perhaps I should extend my earlier suggestion: semiology turns not only pictures but also people into hieroglyphs.

All of Ian Wallace’s art is heavily footnoted with art historical references. The large wall murals had to do with Assyrian palace reliefs, the mood of The Summer Script with its red checkered tablecloth came in emulation of Matisse and Bonnard. An Attack on Literature relates to the modernist taboo on literary allusion. Hypneratomachia was the title of a book produced in Venice at the very end of the 15th century, and when Wallace decided to use it, he had already been working for some time on a full-scale copy in oils of Titian’s Bacchanale. The Constructor was closely based on a collage by El Lissitzky. The striving for disunity in Wallace’s photographs here equates with the assembly of diverse elements in collage. More recently in two works from the end of 1977, he has collaged his own photographs in very close simulation of Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew and the right half of Courbet’s The Studio. The people taking part are close personal friends and fellow artists, and Wallace himself poses for St. Matthew and Baudelaire. On the surface it is as if he were authenticating his existence by the precedents of art history and religion, but in the end no existence is posited at all. The collage is willfully crude; the figures do not integrate into the space or with each other. The images are juxtaposed, but they remain signs for people in a sign for space. The self that emerges has the status only of a cross-referenced image.

Recently Wallace has produced one utterly beautiful single tinted photograph titled The Garden. It has the atmosphere of the most romantic phases of preRaphaelitism, but the analogy only compounds the atmosphere with nostalgia. In a different way it too is unreal: it has the character of exquisitely sensuous phantasmagoria. I am glad it came in time to support my claim that languid sensuosity is a continuing feature of Wallace’s work.

The tensions of Ian Wallace’s position may be difficult to resolve rationally. The mind boggles at the diversity of his source material, and where I can follow his theoretical premises I still have to question the logic of the argument. Yet my intuition tells me that this is deeply meaningful work. I find I have to pick my way carefully if I am to maintain my proper role as a critic. If Wallace and I disagree in our assessment of Roland Barthes or Jacques Lacan that is not an insuperable obstacle. If he feels these writers offer helpful explanations of the workings of visual images and I do not, that only sets us apart in the theoretical preliminaries to our respective tasks. His role as artist is to make art, and my role as critic is to experience the art and report my experience accurately. However, when I come to assess my experience of Wallace’s work I must tread cautiously again. It is not simply that I enjoy the sensuous appeal of surfaces while rejecting the intellectual inconsistencies of what lies underneath. “Experience” is not a name for one part of a work of art, but a way of engaging with every aspect of it, the intellectual as much as the sensuous, and in those terms I find the intellectual disunities and the fragmentation of the continuities of life, to which his semiological method leads, are very meaningful to me. It is the structure of his thought rather than the content of his ideas that qualifies the sensuous response with a poignancy that has the ring of truth.

Eric Cameron