Checking into the Beau-Rivage, Matisse deliberately uprooted himself from his settled existence in Paris—he was checking out of everyday life. But a successful artist these days hardly has what Matisse would have recognized as a settled life. Consider the Canadian artist Ian Wallace, whose remarkable retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery, “At the Intersection of Painting and Photography,” continues to preoccupy me [see “Heroism, Hidden,” January 7/14]. In 2008, for instance, Wallace had solo gallery shows in London, Brussels and New York, not to mention a museum show in Zurich, Rotterdam and Düsseldorf. Naturally, he’ll have traveled to all those cities, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he also attended the group shows in Ottawa and Vienna that featured his work. And, of course, there are artists who are far more in demand than Wallace. How does one keep making work in such circumstances?
Wallace has long been interested in making his activity as an artist a subject of his work: “documenting my workspace,” as he says, is “a self-consciously modernist strategy” for self-reflection. One of the thematic sections of the Vancouver exhibition is accordingly devoted to “The Studio.” But “studio,” it becomes clear, is a highly elastic term as it applies to Wallace’s artistic practice. Yes, the white-walled, cement-floored ex-industrial space where Wallace habitually works in Vancouver appears in various pieces; it’s sweet, too, to catch sight (in Work in Progress [June 28, 2010], 2010) of the drum kit he keeps there—his counterpart, perhaps, to the violin Matisse liked to play as a break from his painting, and which was perhaps a stand-in for himself in Interior with a Violin. But many of Wallace’s studio pictures—which, like most of his work since the late 1980s, juxtapose photographic images and monochromatic or geometrically abstract painting—are really hotel pictures. Among them are four in whose collective title I like to think Matisse would have found a pleasing irony: Abstract Drawing (Hotel de Nice, Paris, February 2, 2010) I-IV, 2010. As “fake, absurd, terrific, delicious” as a Nice hotel might have been, wouldn’t a Parisian hotel pretending to represent Nice be even more so? In these works, as in many of Wallace’s other hotel pictures (and unlike Matisse’s paintings from the Hôtel Beau-Rivage), one can hardly sense the room as a whole, though there is that window; these are still life paintings, where the focus is on a tabletop and the things it holds. The Hotel de Nice suite shows us the sheets of paper on which the artist has been making some geometrical abstract drawings, his supply of colored pencils, a zipper pouch of who knows what small items (a pair of scissors seems to be sticking out—that can’t have been in his carry-on bag!), and an ashtray filled not with stubbed-out cigarettes but with delicately curled pencil shavings.
One trait that Wallace’s Hotel de Nice pictures—and, for that matter, nearly all his other hotel pieces—have in common with Matisse’s paintings from the Hôtel Beau-Rivage is their concern with light. And as with the Matisse of Interior with a Violin, the inclusion of a window in a generally dark picture, and therefore of the gamut of tones between brightness and shadow, makes the light theatrical. The hotel still lifes are a reminder of just what a good photographer Wallace is. “I accept the subject as it presents itself to me,” he has said, but his avowal is misleading. His street pictures certainly give such an impression, but the hotel still lifes are studied: the light is recorded not passively, but with great tenderness and warmth, and one feels the artist’s affection for these familiar tools, just as one feels the light in one’s fingers, in the palms of one’s hands, as one looks at the images. We see them from above, probably at the same angle as the artist would, contemplating the piece of work he is about to continue. The objects are placed with a deceptively casual-looking geometrical rigor that Matisse would have answered with a smile.
Wallace likes to emphasize that the artist is not only a maker but also a thinker. In other hotel pictures of his—as in his studio pictures more broadly—the accouterments shown are ones that might belong to the poet he once thought of becoming: books, notebooks, pens. Or they might belong to the art historian he has also been, traveling to some symposium. But light touches his things delicately, akin to how his colored pencils have touched his sheets of paper: a delicacy that thought alone—so much clumsier than light—rarely achieves.
Barry Schwabsky recently devoted an article to the work of Ian Wallace, “Heroism, Hidden.”