Ian Wallace

Three decades after Daniel Buren’s “The Function of the Studio” (1971) exemplified a critique within Conceptual art of this archetypal lone-artist’s sanctuary, Charles H. Scott Gallery presented “In the Studio,” a survey of work by Ian Wallace dating from 1970 to 2005. Employing aspects of allegory, documentation, and performance informed by a lineage extending from Courbet to Nauman, Wallace likewise questions the mythology of the studio yet reaffirms its validity as a space for thinking, writing, and making.

The works in the show ranged from footage of Wallace’s performance At Work, 1983—in which the artist turned Vancouver’s Or Gallery into a working studio/office—to paintings containing photolaminates flanked by painted monochromatic strips. Among the photographic images were a view of a floor strewn with cans and cords that suggests a Constructivist abstraction; tables and hotel desks piled high with books and photographic contact sheets; and clusters of ladders, tables, and blank canvases. In some works the photographic and painted elements are arranged as vertical zips, functioning as alternating pictorial events and abstracted visual fields. In Corner of the Studio, 1993, they create complex overlapping patterns of receding and advancing planes: A black-and-white photographic panorama of the titular interior is interrupted by colored rectangles overlaid with inked impressions of plywood grain. The latter conflates mechanized painterly gesture with a kind of substitute for the indexical representational processes of photography.

While Wallace posits his works as material incarnations of thought, physically elaborating both the idealized space of abstraction and the more straightforwardly representational space of photography through his use of montage, this exhibition also teasingly evoked a bildungsroman. The images of Wallace reading, of the shifting clutter atop his desk, appear as vignettes from the education of an artist. There is a whiff of camp to the character of the intensely thoughtful, worldly, intellectual worker he thus conjures. But lest Wallace’s project be dismissed as “studio idyll,” these works are complicated by the appearance of the street, institution, and university in other of his series. Wallace presents all of these as social planes activated by contingencies (albeit deeply circumscribed ones) of thought and action.

At issue in Wallace’s oeuvre are chance, ambiguity, and potentiality—both in the overdetermined act of picture making itself and in its underlying conception, (here rhetorically grounded by Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés,” a poem reproduced in the photograph In the Studio (Le Livre), 1993/2005). The text’s celestial imagery is echoed in Wallace’s conception of his tabletop confluences of objects and ideas as “constellations.” It is unclear, however, whether these chance arrangements are indebted to his own intellectual peregrinations or to a historical moment which permits certain ideas to circulate and certain contemplative spaces (the studio or the academic’s desk) to exist.

It would be easy to qualify Wallace’s position, which evokes Symbolist interiority alongside Constructivism, as fatally compromised; and in superficial ways the exhibition does feel conservative, characterizing contemplation as, in part, a form of withdrawal. But Wallace works methodically within the unresolved contradictions of his practice, giving equal status to visual and textual modes. The monochromatic rectangle, the photographic rectangle (which contains wall, window, blank canvas, and floor), the page of text, and the tabletop all appear as planes of one kind or another. Figure and ground oscillate and in so doing encourage us to question how these might frame, interrupt, negate, or even reconstitute one another. This slow, hair-splitting consideration of the gaps and overlaps between conceptual and material boundaries proves an object lesson in the consideration of hybridity, instantaneity, and immateriality, all persistently fuzzy concepts in the production and reception of images.

Trevor Mahovsky