There’s a subtle but crucial difference between showing photographs as art and showing photographs in art. No one has ever been able to elicit quite as much feeling from that difference as the Canadian artist Ian Wallace, whose work is surprisingly little known in the United States. Vancouver (where Wallace has lived most of his life) became, in the 1970s, one of the world’s most generative art scenes, and in the following decade, as a result, a number of artists from there became prominent figures internationally—above all Jeff Wall, now one of the world’s most successful and influential artists; his work is generally considered a major reason (to borrow the title of the book Michael Fried published four years ago) “why photography matters as art as never before.” But for Wall, writing in 1992, it was Wallace who was the key transformative figure on the scene: “I think it can be said that the streams of tradition and counter-tradition in Vancouver divide with the appearance of his work.” Now the Vancouver Art Gallery has mounted a retrospective encompassing some 200 works, “Ian Wallace: At the Intersection of Painting and Photography,” on view through February 24.
For Wall, Wallace was important not only as an example of how to bypass the heritage of romantic, lyrical evocation of the natural landscape that had been the dominant strain in the art of western Canada, but also because at the same time he showed a way out of what Wall calls “the impasse of conceptual and antiformal art” as it had established itself in the 1970s. What was that impasse? Wall doesn’t explicitly define it, but reading between the lines, it is clear that he’s thinking of the tendency of conceptual art to take up a position at the margins of the culture—a tendency that, as it happens, is on full display (through January 20) just upstairs from Wallace in a traveling exhibition, “Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada, 1965–1980.” What Wall took from Wallace was an aspiration “to find a legitimate way…to occupy the kinds of spaces in architecture and culture reserved for painting”—that is, for the great art of the past. The point was not to dismantle the museum but to renew it, with a critical edge.
Wallace had fully assimilated the most important lesson of conceptual art—that art is not primarily a category of objects but rather a way of thinking (or as he put it at the time, “a principle of semiotic order”)—as early as Magazine Piece (1969), which originated as a sequence of right-hand pages from an issue of Look taped to a wall in a straight line. Here, one of the typical “picture magazines” of the time—the perpetual number two to Life—becomes a fragmented panorama of “The Mood of America,” as the first headline on the left would have it—a synoptic meta-picture, a no longer quite readable text but rather a visible image of a cultural moment. Subsequent iterations of the piece used, for instance, an issue of Life—this was in 1970, and the issue featured the killings at Kent State University—and one of Seventeen. The work now exists in the form of a drawn “schema” calling for “the cover and facing pages of a mass-circulation magazine attached to the wall in a given arrangement until exhausted by the format”; the pages are to be shown arrayed in a grid rather than a straight line, the choice of the magazine being pointedly left unspecified. Whatever magazine is chosen, it will appear at once whole (shown from beginning to end) and fragmented (only every other page will be visible, breaking the continuity of texts, pictures and ads). At the same time, the colored tape that runs across the top of each row of pages—the only truly continuous element in the piece—becomes an abstract pictorial element, a horizontal Newmanesque “zip.”
In Vancouver, the Wallace show’s curator, Daina Augaitis, has selected an issue of BOMB, the New York quarterly that showcases “the artist’s voice” through interviews with writers, musicians, painters and so on. This is not exactly the “mass-circulation” periodical Wallace’s schema calls for, and Augaitis’s realization of the piece turns it from a wide-screen snapshot of a moment’s cultural consensus to a cross section of a more restricted cultural setting, one in which Wallace himself might easily figure (although he hasn’t, to my knowledge, appeared in BOMB). Christine Poggi, writing in the exhibition catalog, sees Magazine Piece as an early embodiment of Wallace’s ambition “to think the world through an image of the world,” but here it becomes something smaller, though perhaps no less necessary: a way of thinking the art world through an image of the art world.