Toronto

Ian Wallace

The Power Plant

This exhibition featured 11 works dating from 1970 to 1987. Its 18-year span coincided with the studied breakdown of “object” art by conceptualism and post-conceptualism. Ian Wallace’s photography-based work has been an important manifestation of post-Pop documentarism, yet it also outlines a conceptualist revisionism that underscores a significant shift in the tone and practice of photographic work.

Early pieces such as Pan-Am Scan, 1970, and La mélancolie de la rue, 1973, have a gritty, documentary feel; they recall the unabashed enthusiasm with which photography was taken up by artists looking for a responsible way out of painting in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Photography seemed an alternative that eschewed internalized, expressive subjects in favor of in situ schematizing; that was part of what made it and cinema so exciting to intellectuals of the time. Camera-based work spoke for a new, decentralized visual framework that acknowledged the distended existential life of pop culture. Wallace’s pictures were externalized inventories; the images were blandly uncentered, even alienated, and yet intrinsically activistic. They had the grace of self-contradiction, yet with their political dimensions less and less immediate, they become tokens of a well-intentioned generation that was smart enough to see a problem, and yet comfortable enough not to change. In effect, these images seem like period pieces of the counterculture.

Works that followed, such as Colours of the Afternoon, 1979, hover around this hedonistic inflection. Wallace presents “filmdom” as a life-style pursuit. The horizontal format of jumpcut images has a lively energy that the actors swallow up with their ambling posture. Time winds down for them; they seem purposeless. Their commune with nature is picturesque, as they wander around, spoiled, in a narcissistic arena. Wallace comments obliquely on photography’s complicity with that mentality. He shows that within a decade, the progressiveness of the “photographic” mode had ceased to hold its original meaning. The esthetic position had turned baggy; the medium had turned from being, at its best, a critical, analytic tool to being a pliant extension of an image-conscious culture. The original feedback friction was missing. Photography had become a symptom, a subject, rather than a solution for art.

Wallace’s recent work, which anchors the exhibition, elaborates on the problem and tries to evolve a renewed critical use. Studio/Museum/Street, 1986, The Imperial City, 1986, and Untitled (Heavenly Embrace), 1987, are all explicitly photographic works that combine classical imagery (usually Greek or Roman statuary shot by Wallace at various European museums) with casual, urban snapshots of Vancouver, where Wallace lives and works. They bring together high style and low style, the city and the museum, stone and flesh, and evoke a history of avant-garde self-consciousness about discriminations between art forms and life forms. The photograph, with its muddied origins, should mediate here, but it doesn’t. Instead, Wallace creates a new formal use for it. We see it tamed into a geometric element of a generic abstract painting, which is plotted onto the wall of the gallery. It is surprising to see the photograph submerged into “painting,” given its history in Wallace’s work. But here it becomes an element of an installation; its reality is sculptural. This is the point of Wallace’s reversing its privileged status so that it is back under the umbrella of painting again. The photograph becomes an agent of nostalgia suspended between high art and real life. Its promise of immediacy remains undelivered; it is a bit player, a geometric component of a phantomlike art form that ameliorates contradiction across its elegant white void.

Richard Rhodes