Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Review: Ian Wallace Retrospective VAG

At the Vancouver Art Gallery until February 24, 2013

Ian Wallace: At the Intersection of Painting and Photography is a major survey exhibition of the work of one of Canada's most significant contemporary artists. Based in Vancouver, Wallace has played a critical role in the development of contemporary art since the late 1960s. His early experiments with monochromatic painting, his production of large–scale photographic tableaux and his juxtapositions of photography with painting stand as the basis for a distinct body of work for which Wallace has become internationally recognized.

The exhibition has its own "microsite" which includes a very useful gallery of the works on display. Given the inevitable issues over copyright I am going to suggest that you take a look at that gallery - and do that before you decide to invest your time and money in a visit to the VAG. It is a big exhibition and its not cheap. You may also prefer to read the reviews published in the Georgia Strait, Canadian Art or art daily - all of which are positive about the experience. They seem to have got permission to use some images. I am not going to rip them off. 

I came away feeling that I had wasted a lot of time, and spent more than I would have wished. Wallace is also an academic who talks and writes a lot about his art and what it is supposed to achieve. There are a couple of tv sets that show an interview he recorded with the show's curator. In one of those he talks about the importance of the label that accompanies each artwork on display and the significance of the facts it presents about the work and how it was created. So let me just take one work - In the Metro - as one example. It is actually untitled - so I assume that the curator added the apparently informative label. It is not actually in the metro - and that is not hard to establish just by looking at the poster for the cinema that features in it so strongly. It is in London's West End. This is NOT "The Metro", it's the tube - or The Underground. Is that important? Well since the picture that accompanies it is about the Clayquot Sound protest, which is location critical, this must be too. Given Wallace's clearly intimate relationship with the creation of this exhibit, what are we to make of this carelessness?  Or is it intentional? Is a subsurface public transportation system generic - or is the term Metro somehow artier - more nouvelle vague

How the art is created is also important - according to Wallace himself - and he goes to great lengths to explain how his early works had to be photographed in monochrome, enlarged and then painted as apparently the technology for huge colour enlargements did not exist in 1979 . Except of course outdoor advertising had been using very large colour photographic images for many years at that time. And while there is a lot of information about how "Lookout" was done ("hand-coloured silver gelatin prints") there is a lot less about the more recent At the Crosswalk VIII, 2011 ("photolaminate, acrylic on canvas") - are these giant TIFFs from a digital camera (as some other images are identified)? Why not use large format colour film for the original image? Then you get a much finer grain and far more detail in the final image. 

The objects that I have the hardest time accepting as worthwhile exhibits in an exhibition are those where the artist simply gives the curator a set of instructions - go buy some timber, cut it into these sizes and lay them out like so. The timber then gets returned to the store at the end of the exhibition. A set of white boards leaning against a wall. The white line down the middle of the road represented by more painted timber. And so on. The feeling this created for me was that we, the paying public, are being taken as gullible mugs. 

And there is, of course, lots of verbiage talking about these exhibits in learned academic tones. "Conceptual vigour and aesthetic innovation" indeed. Harrumph.

The protests at Clayoquot Sound were very significant events. He chose not to photograph the clashes with police, but shows the extraordinary variety of people who turned up and simply sat peacefully to stop the logging of huge old growth trees. Very few were hippies.  So far, the protest has been successfull. The trees still stand - for now. Recording the peaceful protest is actually useful - it certainly corrects the images I had of the event simply because I was not there and only have mainstream media and its sensationalism to rely on for my previous view of what happened. Juxtaposing that image - or actually interrupting it - with plywood painted to reveal its grain adds very little "value" other than rudely yelling at the viewer "I'm an artist! This is art. It's not news!" What you make of a set of pages torn from a magazine and stuck to the wall with masking tape - or a monochrome panel, neatly painted framed - is up to you. Actually a series of four of them on the walls of the staircase are rather effective. 

With admission to this exhibit you also get a floor of Conceptual Art in Canada 1965 - 1980 - which is Wallace again and his contemporaries - some of which will produce wry smiles. Shipping a log across Canada by train as passenger "loggage" is fun. But when you have to write lots of words to explain the picture(s) as is done in both these shows, I start to question the value of the image. A word is apparently only worth 1/1,000th of an image - so why so many of them?

On the top floor are some chaps doing some very large Haida wood carvings - which is a very slow painstaking process. Not much progress is going to made while you stand there. And some Emily Carr water colours (good) alongside those of Charles John Collings - who seemed to be a better house builder than water colour painter on the evidence presented here.  

The weather at present is dreadful. An afternoon at the art gallery is a good way to keep dry and warm - and the cafe is always worth the visit.  This is an expensive pass time but far less crowded than the adjacent Pacific Centre where the shopping is frenetic before Christmas. But maybe you can find better uses for your time and money.