Photo: Chick Rice
Courtesy: Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver
Attack on Literature I and II 1975 Photo: Don
Photo: Tim Bonham
Protest II 1993 Courtesy: Catriona Jeffries
Site LA IV 2003 Courtesy: Catriona Jeffries
here for more details on the works.
Wallace has spent his entire career in Vancouver,
from his education at the University of British Columbia
to the present. He is one of the artists who have given
Vancouver its reputation abroad as the leading art centre
in Canada, and he has done this in the best way possible
by making work that holds a central place in
the art history of the last 40 years.
Throughout the 1970s, Wallace developed
a series of large format photographs for which he asked
various friends to act out parts in fictional scenarios.
A good example is An Attack on Literature (1975).
In these works he explored both the expressive possibilities
of montage and the narrative legacy of historical painting.
Wallace was one of the first, if not the first, to see
the possibility that large format photography could
be a way of working out of conceptualism into a new
kind of pictorialism, with strong roots in historic
painting. This has become a very important position
in contemporary art, and it is recognized world wide
that the best exponents of it are to be found in Vancouver.
Wallace is an independent thinker who
saw connections, resemblances and possibilities that
metropolitan artists in London or New York didn't see,
or couldn't see, because they led off the existing map
of art history. He demonstrates how one individual,
in a local context, can resonate with central problems
in modern culture and offer a critical reflection on
those problems that can have a world-wide influence.
During his long career, Wallace has lived through the
emergence of the global art world in a way that can
teach us how to live in it nowopenness and independence
of mind lead to synchronicity and relevance.
There are three main periods in Wallace's
work. His early photography, in the late sixties, reflected
the conceptual art of that period, using the snapshot
as a tool of aesthetic and social analysis. The seventies
was the period of the staged photo tableaux already
mentioned, and this period comes to an end and culmination
with the work Poverty, a piece that was developed
over a period of years (1980 to 1987). This piece started
as a short black and white film in which some of the
artist's friends played the role of a group of homeless
derelicts and clochards, passing the time in
vacant lots and deserted streets. Later Wallace began
to silkscreen stills of the film onto coloured canvas.
The title Poverty is entirely ironic, because
the work is nothing if not a testament to aesthetic
abundance, and a brilliant example of how the trope
of poverty or reduction can enable the richest modernist
achievements. The closest parallels in art history are
the courtly masques of Watteau, but the piece also picks
up on the costume tableaux of Manet, the photos of nineteenth-century
documentarist Thomas Annan, and the Italian neo-realist
cinema of the post-war years. Poverty is also the hinge
between his work from the seventies and the work that
he has been doing since: photos laminated onto canvas
in juxtaposition with painted areas. The recent work
brings forward the documentary and snapshot photo-graphy
of his first period, but combines it in a stylish, simple
and knowing way with everything that he had learned
about painting and the picture during the seventies.
Wallace's other principal activity has
been teaching. His role as an instructor and mentor
of several generations of younger Vancouver artists
has been crucial. He began to teach as soon as he finished
university, and three initiatives in particular had
a big effect on the kind of work that the more intelligent
artists of the eighties in Vancouver would make. He
taught at the University of British Columbia, from 1967-70,
and then at the Vancouver School of Art (now the Emily
Carr Institute of Art and Design) from 1972-1998, where
he taught a contemporary art course that was one of
the earliest to introduce the art of the recent past
into the art history curriculum. Through this program
Wallace demonstrated to his students how a contemporary
artist could be, and in fact should be, engaged in both
art history and in active contemporary debate. Wallace's
practice includes both art production and art history,
and that made him an important model. Secondly, he co-ordinated
his course with an ambitious visitors program. Thirdly,
in the eighties he introduced a History of Media course
that brought printmaking, photography and film together
with painting as a single domain of images. This seems
unremarkable now, but at the time it was a very progressive
step. It widened the range of reference significantly,
placed many non-canonical or marginalized figures at
the centre of discussion, and empowered younger artists
to construct their own genealogies outside of the accepted
canon. Wallace's courses and his visitors program cannot
be underestimated for the effect they had on the art
scene in Vancouver throughout the seventies and eighties.
Through them, the qualities that characterize his own
work, its cosmopolitanism, its openness to many media,
its historical depth and above all its literariness,
have infected the thinking and practice of many younger
Modernism is supposed to be resolutely
anti-literary, and so Wallace's literariness, which
takes the realm of images as continuous with those of
poetry and novels, is perhaps the hardest thing for
an art world audience to appreciate. The difficulty
is the more acute as Wallace is not aligned with post-modernism,
and his interests do lie with the classic modernist
works. But the key to Wallace's achievement is that
he takes even the most mundane photo, or even the most
abstract artistic gesture, as full of narrative meaning,
meaning that will emerge in time. His work demands an
intelligent viewer, and I suspect that it is too demanding
for most, yet on the surface it is extremely simple.
This simplicity is in fact the guarantee of its integrity.
Wallace never plays to the stadium. His work has the
dignity of beauty, but refuses to be entertainment.
The beauty appears in his later period as the simple
rectitude of good design, and this is the generic form
that underlies his recent practice neither painting
nor photography but graphic design, particularly the
design of the pages of a book.
Actually, it would be more accurate to
say that graphic design is the matrix within which both
photography and painting can take their places in his
work, in a classic modern strategy that reinvents tradition
through the forms of mass culture. To say that graphic
design is a minor art is to explain its attraction for
an artist as sophisticated as Wallace, because he understands
that in the modern period innovation has always proceeded
from the articulation of high ambition and minor forms.
A good example is the set of nine very important pieces
from 1995 called Clayoquot Protest (Aug. 9, 1993).
These are Wallace's history paintings. Wallace documented
an historic confrontation over forest use on the West
Coast, an event at which he was present. Here the great
tradition of the history painting and the lesser tradition
of the documentary photo are nestled into Wallace's
characteristically-measured and intelligent distribution
of rectangles on the open page of the book. But his
real intention is to test art's role in the social realm
that we all share. Wallace believes in the autonomy
of art, in its need to formulate its own problems and
create its own values. He also believes it has a place
in the polity.
In retrospect it is another work of the
seventies, Image Text (1979), that is most prophetic
of Wallace's mature phase. The most explicitly book-like
of all his works, it seems to encapsulate all the themes
that have so far been mentioned. It also reinforces
for us the essential literariness of Wallace's project.
Whether his work is documentary or fiction, whether
it takes on a political or personal or purely aesthetic
flavour all these possibilities are present
its origin is always in the objectivity of the artwork
proclaimed by Symbolism, particularly the poetry of
In a period in which the masters of modernism
are subject to an often-unbalanced critique, Wallace
has proved the utility of this position, as embodied,
above all, in its flexibility, its ability to enable
a wide range of practices. As a poet of images, Wallace
demonstrates that a work can have meaning without being
loaded with didactic messages, that it can be visually
striking without surrendering reflection, that it can
use the mundane and everyday without succumbing to banality,
and that it can be completely up-to-date without losing
touch with the past.
is an artist originally from Vancouver currently teaching
at the University of Waterloo. He is currently completing
a book-length history of art in British Columbia.