Ian Wallace: At the Intersection of Painting and Photography. Vancouver Art Gallery. Until Feb. 24, 2013. For more information visit vanartgallery.bc.ca/the_exhibitions/ exhibit_ian_wallace.html.
"THIS is really Vancouver art. I'm not making a big thing about it, but the unique esthetic of the city and its people comes through in the work."
Artist Ian Wallace is speaking by phone from the East Vancouver studio he's occupied since 1985. He's repeating what he told a tour of Vancouver Art Gallery docents just a few days before. The tour went two hours longer than planned, he says - he simply had so much to say about the work, spanning over 40 years, now on display.
Ian Wallace: At the Intersection of Painting and Photography, explores the internationally-renowned artist's creative journey from the 1960s to today. From an experimental slide show (Poetry Must be Made by All) to elaborately staged, large-scale photographs (Lookout) and many works that combine photographs and abstract painting (Clayoquot Protest, At the Crosswalk), the exhibit documents Wallace's preoccupations with cinema, urban landscapes and the process of art making.
Steely downtown Vancouver is the subject of many of Wallace's large photographs, but Wallace says his formative years in bucolic West Vancouver played a big part in his development as an artist. In 1954, Wallace, then 11, moved with his parents and four younger brothers to Palmerston and 21st Street - at the time "the top" of West Vancouver.
"From our house down to the water was people and West Vancouver, from our house up above was wilderness," says Wallace. "There was this total kind of contrast between the wilderness and the mountains - what we always called the bush - and the town below."
Wallace remembers going into "the bush" in the morning and not coming home until dinner time.
"We used to build our own little gold rush town . . . It was very worked out with costumes and everything. We'd have all these narratives, we'd have robberies and chase each other through the woods," says Wallace.
Encouragement of the arts at West Vancouver secondary and "incredible teachers" also played a role.
"The atmosphere in the school was great," says Wallace. "There was real encouragement, even though there were no real resources."
Wallace says that hijinks got him kicked out of an industrial drafting class; as punishment, he was sent to the art class, where he specialized in drawing portraits of pretty girls. He also published cartoons and poetry in the school newspaper.
When he moved out of his mother's house after high school, it was into an old house at Robson and Burrard - then an epicentre of beatnik culture - with two other former West Vancouver secondary students and aspiring artists, Terry Reid and King Anderson.
"I followed them into beatnik territory," laughs Wallace. (His brothers Ken and Keith also work in the art world, Ken as a painter and Keith as a curator.)
There was also the Question Mark - a club at 15th Street and Marine Drive in West Vancouver where jazz or poetry were on offer almost every night of the week.
While Wallace was interested in poetry, filmmaking and playing jazz ("I was never good enough," he says of his attempts with guitar and tenor sax), art is where he finally settled, although he has continued to bring elements of those other art forms into his work. On the first floor of the exhibition, which deals with his earlier work, film stills from Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin-Feminin make up one piece. Poetry and text are incorporated into other works.
On the second floor, Wallace's interest in urban landscapes, institutions like museums and the artist's studio as a place of work are on display. Many of the pieces are large photographs which incorporate abstract paintings: In his At the Crosswalk series, two city dwellers on opposite street corners are separated by stark painted blocks in the centre of the photograph. Dwarfed by the office buildings in the background, the people also seem to be separated by an insurmountable gulph.
"I'm rescuing painting from oblivion by making it the ground for the photograph," states Wallace, moving into art history mode, a subject he taught at UBC in the 1960s and 70s.
He explains that he incorporates painting with photography as a way to merge the more highbrow medium of painting with the more common, found-everywhere photography.
"Everybody's telephone has a camera," Wallace points out.
Photography and film took over where paintings used to hold sway, providing realistic portraits of important cultural moments and stories. Abstract art and Cubism were responses to this, says Wallace. For him, merging the two media is his way of maintaining "values about humanity, subjectivity and who we are as individuals."
After decades of depicting urban life, Wallace is now thinking about using "the bush" as subject matter. The retrospective exhibition has given him an opportunity to look back and reflect on a body of work. But he hasn't finished adding to it yet.
"I've got a lot of things in my backpack waiting to be unloaded," says Wallace.