New York

Ian Wallace

P.H.A.G., Inc.

Well-known in Vancouver as a founder of photoconceptualism, Ian Wallace has had a profound influence on such artists as Jeff Wall and Ken Lum, yet he does not share their high profile internationally: This was his first New York show since 1992. Of course, being a master of understatement—making images of nonevents into an art of Mallarméan allusiveness—has never been the recommended route to celebrity.

Since the early ’80s Wallace has juxtaposed two apparently incompatible artistic paradigms: pure abstraction in the form of monochrome painting and the referential richness of documentary photography. His recent works—I’m not sure whether to call them paintings or photographs—were exhibited under the title “New York City.” Their subject matter recalls his early pairings of painting and photography, particularly the mid-’80s works from the series “My Heroes in the Street,” color photographs of pedestrians in Vancouver laminated onto canvas with broad areas of white painted on either side. Since then Wallace has touched on genres of both photography and painting, from history to still life (including the special subgenre of the artist’s studio picture), but his New York pictures represent a fresh reexamination of the genre of street photography.

The formal content of the works on view is quite different from that of “My Heroes in the Street”: The figures in that series were shown in relative isolation, while the recent images are crowded; the visual rhythms in the works here are based on verticality rather than horizontality. The painted areas have changed accordingly—they are now tall, slender bars of color (or black) reminiscent of Barnett Newman’s zips rather than the chunky white rectangles that bordered the photographs in “My Heroes in the Street.” As a result, it might at first seem that the painted portions have become secondary, little more than frames for the more immediately eye-catching photographs. But it is the very act of attending to the photographs that draws one’s attention back to the paint. As soon as one registers that the narrative content of the images is the simple act of crossing the street, or waiting to do so—in essence, the dead zone of urban life when we are merely marking time between one place and another, moments that aren’t productive but don’t count as leisure either—one begins to see the photographs themselves as merely zones of transition between the painted areas that bracket them, which thereby take on a new emphasis. And so, despite the complex play of intervals that makes the photographic portions of these paintings so spatially rich, one tends to think of them as paintings. Still, Wallace is not trying to reconcile formalism and humanism. He accepts them both, but as radically incomplete paradigms, neither of which can subsume the values of the other.

Barry Schwabsky