by Yasmine Shemesh
The gallery space on the floor level of the Rennie Museum is bright, with sunshine streaming through the windows. Mounted on the far side of the wall are eight silk-screens depicting various scenes of scarcity. The photographs —framed by colourful, painted, monochromatic backdrops — are an iteration of “Poverty”: Ian Wallace’s 1980 – 1984 multimedia installation that comments on transience. This variation, in particular, was done in 1982. It’s presented as part of Collected Works, a solo exhibition of the esteemed Vancouver artist’s rare and historic work.
Wallace, himself, is engrossed in the piece. Standing with his jacket slung over one shoulder, he grows passionate as he describes the thought process for a project he created more than 30 years ago. This is the first time he’s seen it since 1988. How does that feel? “Well, it’s nice to see,” he smiles.
It began as a short film. “I had a movie camera with 100-feet of 16 millimetre black and white film — only one roll, that’s all I had,” Wallace recalls. He wanted to explore homelessness — a growing issue in the city following the closing of Essondale Hospital and the displacement of patients — but felt uncomfortable pushing his camera in disadvantaged people’s faces. So, he created a fictional illusion with friends and family acting the parts. His son, Cameron, dressed in old clothes, stars in one scene. An image taken at the railway yard on Drake Street mimics slums of industrial 19th century Glasgow.
“I felt it was more authentic or genuine to construct my own interpretation of this as the images, rather than using real people,” Wallace explains. “I didn’t want to profit artistically or financially from other people’s suffering, so I had to create a simulation of this subject so we can think about the subject, but without it necessarily exploiting people’s reality. I had a lot of criticism about this work on that level and I’m open to that. I think the discussion — even the critical discussion of people that are antagonistic to what I did, that’s okay. That actually makes the work function and work. It’s not just, ‘oh, that’s beautiful.’ We can say, ‘this sets up problems for me to discuss.’”
Wallace transferred the film to video, shot stills, then added paint to the canvases. The bright tones ironically counter the dark social theme. “All my works are about contradiction, about creating oppositions, and trying to make the oppositions face off against each other,” he says.
It challenges the viewer to contemplate the idea of representation and what our own perspectives of poverty mean — something, certainly, that is a poignant point of discussion today.
“I mean, there’s millions of people that are homeless and wandering the globe, looking for some place to settle, looking for a home, what we call a home,” Wallace continues, his eyes scanning over his canvases. “And we’re lucky — at least, I’m lucky. I’m a homeboy. I’ve lived here all my life. There’s opportunity to survive here, in one way or another. But for many people in the world, that isn’t the case.”
In 1980, when he started working on “Poverty,” Wallace was 37 years old. Though he was already known for his unique juxtaposition of painting and photography, he was living modestly, creating out of his studio on Abbott and Cordova, across from Woodwards. He would soon be renowned for his influential role in Vancouver’s photo-conceptualism movement through the next decade, alongside contemporaries Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas, Roy Arden, and Ken Lum. In 2012, he would be named an Officer of the Order of Canada for his contributions to art and his thoughtful exploration of social issues and spaces.
Wallace also taught art history at Emily Carr and the University of British Columbia — the latter, a place he found much inspiration as both student and teacher. The campus was the site of 1990’s “Idea of the University” — a sprawling panorama of 16 images showing instances of academic life. The work takes up an entire room on the second floor of the Rennie Museum, wrapping around each corner.
“I was thinking about the question of learning and art, and where art fits into the university system and what that involves and everything,” Wallace says. “But I was a conceptual artist. I was more academically inclined than a lot of other artists. I was more about research and writing and that kind of presentation. So I decided to do a piece of work that kind of recognized that in other people’s activities.” For Wallace, the idea was something both independent and intellectual, rather than defined by students sitting in rows.
“My technique was to show students how to do their own learning,” he continues. “They don’t have to listen to me. I want them to discover things for themselves and for them to tell me what they’ve discovered.” He laughs. “Of course, I’m being selfish, but I learned a lot of things that way.”
He quickly moves across the floor, pointing out old colleagues, friends, and students whose faces recite the stories behind the photographs. June, the department secretary. Ellen Ramsey, one of the original directors of the Or Gallery. Anna Chang, a student. Serge Guilbaut, still a professor at UBC. In one image, “Discussion in the Main Mall,” Guilbaut, Bill Wood, and Mark Lewis stand together, their faces perplexed and stricken, as they learn news of the Montreal Massacre.
“That was my lecture room, right there!” Wallace motions to a photograph of a cluster of desks and posters on a wall. “I had packed classrooms because I was the hippie professor. Everybody wanted to be in on it. This is in the ‘60s, when I taught. And I was young, I was only a few years younger than the students, actually.”
In its vintage, does “Idea of the University” still reflect an intimate, everyday portrayal of free study? “The distance, now, from it changes a bit,” Wallace contemplates. “People aren’t familiar with these people, aren’t familiar with these places, are going to see it in a different way. And that’s what happens, in anything in the history of art.”
Art history continues to play an important role in Wallace’s life. Although he retired from teaching the subject 20 years ago, it has never ceased to enlighten him. He still researches. A recent trip took him to the Prado Museum in Madrid and the National Gallery in London, where he admired Renaissance paintings. “It’s constant interchange,” Wallace says.
In 1977, experimenting with his passion, Wallace shot the “The Calling.” The black and white photograph plays upon “The Calling of Saint Matthew,” Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s 1599-1600 masterpiece that illustrates Jesus Christ selecting Saint Matthew as a disciple. In Wallace’s version, Wall is Christ and Wallace is Saint Matthew. “I had a moustache at the time,” he grins. “The irony here is Jeff Wall, who was actually a student of mine, is calling me, the teacher, to become his disciple.” Wallace chuckles. “He’s always joking around.”
A history buff, Wallace is interested in how things come to be. This is demonstrated in his fascination with building and his photographic work of construction sites. “Construction Site (The Barcelona Series I-V),” shot in Barcelona in 1991, depicts the housing developments for the Olympic athletes of the 1992 summer games. Steel frames, cement trucks, and shirtless workers are accented by bars of monoprint texture — a method Wallace was playing with at the time, where he nailed a sheet of plywood to the floor, inked it, laid canvas on top, then danced on the back. Deep grooves and knots in the wood balance with the textures of the site.
As Wallace descends back down to the Rennie Museum’s main floor, he walks amongst his ideas. His canvases, like open windows, invite a consideration of a different perspective. “I have all my attitudes that are the same as other people and different from other people,” Wallace says. “Everyone’s political and personal about everything.”