October 10, 2017

Looking Back to Move Forward

by Sydney Marshall

Ian Wallace
The Studio, 1977

Ian Wallace
The Calling, 1977

Hung on the back wall of Rennie Museum’s smallest room are two of Ian Wallace’s most critical works: The Studio (1977) and The Calling (1977). Both are photographic reproductions of history paintings, namely, Gustave Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio: A real allegory summing of seven years of my artistic and moral life (1854-1855) and Michelangelo Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600). The black and white photographs seem understated at first – each features a cluster of figures mostly shaded by the high contrast rendering. When contextualized within the larger timeline of the photoconceptual movement, the photographs are proven to be highly influential and of great historical importance. Wallace was a professor to fellow photoconceptualists Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, and Stan Douglas, so mutual inspiration is to be expected. That being said, rarely is his influence as visible as with the impact of these two works. Using techniques of montage, staged photography, and art historical reference, Wallace established protocols for photoconceptual art that were explored by his contemporaries for years to come.

Both The Studio and The Calling are autonomous works, united in their mutual emulation of historical paintings, and their unusual mode of production. Here, Wallace has opted to explore the limits of the photographic medium by aligning it to painterly technique. Rather than capturing the entire scene in a single photograph, Wallace placed and photographed each figure individually. He then assembled each fragment into a consolidated whole, constructing each aspect of the composition slowly, over time, just as one would construct a painting. Techniques of collage and photomontage had already existed for decades prior, but rarely had they been used in such a direct confrontation of painting. Aligning both methods of production – one with centuries of institutionalization in its past, the other still fighting for validity – allowed Ian Wallace to simultaneously destabilize painterly tradition and empower photographic potential.

The Calling is easily the more identifiable of the two works. An archetypal religious renaissance painting, the piece features a biblical scene of redemption updated for the 17th century. In it, Jesus enters a tavern to call sinful tax collector Matthew into his apostlehood. Just as in the original painting, a cluster of people sit around a table, all looking rightward to welcome Jesus into their frame. In this interpretation, the role is played by Jeff Wall, who mimics the original’s gesturing hand. Too distracted counting his coins, the only figure who doesn’t acknowledge him is the man sat at the far left of the table, here played by Rodney Graham. Although the role is somewhat contested, Wallace has supposedly cast himself as Saint Matthew, pointing to himself as if to say “Who, me?” in response to Jesus’ outstretched arm. The style of the photograph deviates quite greatly from the painted original, but the high contrast black and white film certainly pays homage to Caravaggio’s infamous use of chiaroscuro.

The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1600
(image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Comparatively, The Studio is almost unrecognizable. In this instance, Wallace has taken a small crop of Courbet’s original, choosing only to feature an interpretation of the bottom right corner of The Artist’s Studio. The original takes up traditions of allegory and realism in painting, featuring a number of figures standing in as symbols for various aspects of Courbet’s own life. Centered in the composition, he’s painted himself and his nude model, thus situating his practice within the crosshairs of these representational groups: his patrons, his friends, his government, his reality. In Wallace’s recreation, Jeff Wall takes Courbet’s place, while Wallace cast himself as Charles Baudelaire, featured on the far right of the composition, reading.

As well as being representations of ‘famous’ paintings to which Wallace can associate his practice, both emulations have additional ironies and relevancies. Caravaggio’s painting hails from the peak of association between artists and divine right, during which artistic talent was believed to be selectively awarded to mortals by the grace of God. This assumption is one that the discourse of Art History has subsequently fought – specifically around the emergence of conceptualism. By casting himself in the role of the ‘divinely selected’, Wallace challenges the historical ‘rules’ associated with artistic production. No longer must the artist be ‘divinely selected’ for his painterly competence, but instead, he reaches prominence on the basis of his own ideas. The tone of The Studio is similarly paradoxical, given Wallace’s portrayal of an opponent of photography, Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire openly regarded photography as a “servant of the sciences and arts”*, rather than its own art form. By embodying this oppositional figure, Wallace subverts the meaning of Baudelaire as an allegorical symbol, redefining the figure to ironically represent his own attitudes towards art.

Gustave Courbet
detail of The Painter’s Studio: A real allegory summing of
seven years of my artistic and moral life
, 1854-1855
(image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Only after the established practices of painting and photography had been sufficiently destabilized by Ian Wallace were other photoconceptual artists able to come in and expand on his work. Wallace’s precise combination of photomontage and historical re-staging hasn’t been mimicked, but his influence can be found strewn across the photoconceptual repository. Stan Douglas almost exclusively works in photographic re-staging, although he generally depicts subjects from local histories or cinema, rather than from the history of art. Rodney Graham’s photographs don’t pull directly from a historical source, but his staged self-portraits certainly continue Wallace’s interest in artistic self-representation. The influence is perhaps most notable in Jeff Wall’s work of the late seventies to early nineties – a period characterized by his interest in re-staging and photomontage.

Jeff Wall’s Picture for Women (1979), produced just two years after Wallace’s works, is a loose interpretation of Edouard Manet’s Un bar aux Folies Bergère (1882). The piece is similar to The Studio or The Calling: it is both a photographic work that depicts a painted subject from a relevant period of history and a montage of two attached pieces of film – but its deviations provide additional areas for reflection. Where Wallace’s works tend to self reflexively explore issues of art and artistic labour, Wall’s choice of painting urges further examinations of sexual representation within this art historical framework. His choice to not only leave the camera visible but to centre it in the composition encourages further contemplations on the role of the apparatus in the photographic process. It could also be argued that his choice to present the photograph within a light-box completes the transition of the photograph from ephemeral printed matter to a concretized art object.

Ultimately, Ian Wallace’s relationship to the academic institution has proved critical to his practice. In creating works that explore the past and present states of artistic production, like The Studio and The Calling, Wallace has created a foundational platform from which his students and peers can dive. In the forty years since the work’s production, each Vancouver photoconceptualist has continued the discourse in their own unique way, but each relies on the basis set by Ian Wallace to do so.

*Baudelaire, Charles. “Charles Baudelaire: The Mirror of Art”. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1955. Print.

September 19, 2017

[Newsletter] “Ian Wallace: Collected Works” Exhibition Extension & Artist Talk

August 25, 2017

Ian Wallace on his diverse practice, which artists inspire him and his views on creativity. Interviewed on the occasion of ‘Ian Wallace: Collected Works’ exhibited at Rennie Museum, May 27, 2017 – October 14, 2017.

Ian Wallace at Rennie Museum from Rennie Collection on Vimeo.

VIDEO & EDIT: Milena Salazar

July 25, 2017

Unraveling the University

by Sydney Marshall

Ian Wallace
The Idea of the University I-XVI, 1990

Without contest, my favourite artwork by Ian Wallace is The Idea of the University (1990). Installed in Rennie Museum’s monumental four-storey high exhibition space, the sprawling canvasses are almost as immense as their depicted subject: the University of British Columbia. It’s likely that I appreciate it so much because like Wallace, I also studied at U.B.C., sitting in the same lecture hall that he used to teach in. This sentimentality seems to be shared; local visitors will often stop to point out former professors, or remember old buildings that have since been demolished. The piece is an exercise in collective memory. Functioning like a time capsule, it allows viewers to reflect on developments from the past to present. This is, however, just one aspect of a multi-faceted piece. By using the competing technical modes of painting and photography to depict university spaces, Wallace challenges the notion that painting is the only valid form of artistic production within academia. Historically, art production has operated within a technical hierarchy, with painting as the most revered medium due to the artistic labour it necessitates. The 20th century’s shifting social climate ultimately sees a redistribution of this hierarchical power. In response to the increasing corporatization of the university space, anti-institutional dissent permeated universities across the North American continent – U.B.C. included. For Ian Wallace and his contemporaries, this manifested as a desire to dispute traditional designations of painting as the most inherently valuable way to produce art. With his work, Wallace recontextualizes the medium, placing it in direct conversation with its subsidiaries: photography, writing, and thinking. In doing so, he subverts the idea that a technical hierarchy needs exist at all, equating multiple forms of production across a broad spectrum of intellectual and artistic interests.

Ian Wallace
The Idea of the University I-XVI, 1990

Conceived for a special exhibition at the U.B.C. Fine Arts Gallery in 1990, the work features sixteen photographs of university spaces and personnel in various states of candidness, each flanked with bars of white and multicoloured monochrome. In its entirety, the work looks cinematic – as if it were a filmstrip of image stills pulled from a promotional clip. This is not to say the images are typically beautiful because, by all accounts, they’re not. The depicted spaces are not inherently exciting. Some photographs are oddly cropped, others slightly out of focus; these formal details are irrelevant to the medium’s intended purpose: its subject. Photography, as a medium, offers to art that which painting cannot. The photograph is able to capture the totality of ‘the everyday’ as it exists in a moment, bringing banality into focus and calling the viewer to engage with it further. Visible beauty no longer designates whether a work is ‘art’ or ‘not art’; instead, it is the depth of concept that provides this justification. The valorization of these images as ‘art’ is additionally supported by their proximity to monochrome painting. The white monochrome acts as grounding, a symbolic representation of the white-walled gallery space typically designating a work of art. The multicoloured inclusions operate similarly. Different on each canvas, the monochrome bars provide an aesthetic and historical reference to modernism that further situates the opposing photographs within an established artistic context. By referencing this history, Wallace is able to push the limit of acceptable artistic production, using the predetermined power of modernism to elevate the comparatively new medium of photography.

It should be noted that a key component of The Idea of the University is missing from its visual representation: Wallace’s catalogue essay. The writing has become a near immovable companion to the work, as it explains precisely why the artist has chosen to explore the subject of the university. In it, Wallace identifies the contemporary university as an abstracted space, caught between its founding principles and modern-day realities. The university is supposed to be a universalizing space, providing equal opportunity to acquire ‘truth’ and knowledge to everyone that passes through its metaphorical gates. Wallace almost immediately invalidates this idea by identifying the discrepancy between this ideal image and its actuality*. Instead of a collective organization united in the unhindered production of knowledge, the contemporary university exists as an ideology-producing institution that services a number of specific political and socioeconomic interests*. For Wallace, the same designation could be given to the discourse of art – a supposedly universal field that relies almost entirely on individual notions of taste and arbitrary economic determinations. The Idea of the University works as an evaluation of both the university and the discourse of art, but Wallace very intentionally leaves the canvasses open-ended. Instead, he presents the failures (or at least, potential failures) of these systems in his writing, using its visual counterpart as a stimulus by which the viewer can judge the validity of his propositions for themselves.

Ian Wallace
The Idea of the University I-XVI, 1990

Just as Wallace succeeds in neutrally depicting the university space, so too does he succeed in avoiding a singular narrative of exactly how knowledge is produced. He chooses not to privilege one form of ‘work’ over another, but does show immense regard for practice in general. Some empty and others full, most of the photographed spaces feature a single figure engaging in various forms of intellectual labour: reading, searching the web, or completing administrative tasks. All of these engagements are qualified as ‘work’ that contributes to the ultimate output of the university. This is paralleled by Wallace’s own technical expansions of artistic labour. He challenges traditional perceptions of painting and photography by combining the two, then supplementing the combination with writing. In this sense, it is neither the visual nor the written work that takes precedence, but the idea that all of these productive forms are equally valid. In essence, Wallace’s presentation of simultaneous forms of labour democratizes realms of production within art, decentralizing painting as the foundation upon which art must be based. Not only does artwork not need to be painted, it doesn’t even have to be visual. To Ian Wallace, a radical thought is as legitimate an artistic gesture as a visible brushstroke.

* Wallace, Ian. “The Idea of the University.” UBC Fine Arts Gallery, 1990. Page 23. Print.

June 16, 2017

Contextual Narratives of Simon Starling

by Jacky Lo

Simon Starling
detail of One Ton II, 2005

Looking at art, we naturally consider the form, content, and context of the work and often times we tend to dismiss the monetary factors in its creation. Exposing the financial aspects of art can sometimes create a controversial presence in an artwork or an artist’s practice, as it contradicts the general assumption that visual art is simply an artistic expression. Indeed, this assumption can lead artists to steer the focus away from the economics of art. Considering that money can at times define or limit a work, it is refreshing to see artists take on the challenge to unfold the fiscal backside. Artists like Simon Starling have willingly generated a discourse on the topic by revealing the role economics play in their body of work. Starling addresses the economic roles through both the use of material transformations and historical narratives that deeply inform his practice.   

Starling’s photographic work at the Rennie Museum is finely tuned, framed and displayed in sharp monochromatic tones, with an underlying sense of purpose and structure. Displayed across the brick backdrop of the original back half of the Wing Sang building, One Ton II (2005), consists of 5 repeat photographs of a South African ore mine, which Starling utilizes to highlight the commercial efforts in art making. Although visually flat, the photos are composed of hundreds of thousands of three-dimensional platinum particles at an atomic level, particles that he considers as related to sculpture. Starling has framed the prints within acrylic boxes rather than traditional frames, akin to sculptural pieces in display cases. The process he employs to obtain these particles informs the way the work is perceived conceptually.

Simon Starling
Pictures for an Exhibition, 2013

The narrative structure of the work’s material process is essentially an investigation into the origin of raw materials. In order to create the photographs, Starling oversees a chain of industrial and environmental processes. The depicted ore mine is also the supplier for the platinum used in the photographs. The result is as many prints equivalent to the amount of platinum subtracted from one ton of ore. Platinum is an expensive element that currently retails at about $45 CAD per gram, making the artwork costly to produce. Furthermore, platinum mining requires specialized industrial and environmental processes. It requires time, research, specialists, and considerable funds to complete the connection between mining operations, photographic production, and the resulting commodity that resides within a museum. This material choice and means of transformation is a demonstration of the high cost of creation, and thereby directs us towards the relationship between the creative process and the need for economic backing. This backstory of labour, as well as the embedded economic and environmental networks, reveal a facet of the fiscal and artistic process that Starling has wittingly invoked.

Pictures for an Exhibition (2013) exposes an intricate structure of historical accounts and economics of the art world through the documentation of how art is circulated. The work addresses two installation photographs of a 1927 exhibition featuring 19 pieces of famed sculptor Constantin Brancusi at the Arts Club of Chicago. These sculptures would later be sold and spread across the world in a flurry of museums and collections. Starling focused his research on discovering and photographing the trails of collectors and institutions, all of which had the means or intention to buy, sell, and gift these sculptures. He found each Brancusi work in its current location and captured them in the exact same angle as they appear in the original 1927 installation photographs. Through photo manipulation, Starling overlaid the 19 Brancusi sculptures back together to recreate a facsimile of the original installation photographs. This process directs the viewers to a historical network of financial trails regarding these sculptures and their collectors. The use of a historical lens personifies the sculptures: it represents the trajectory of their past ‘lives’ and the journeys that these sculptures have taken from the original exhibition to spaces revealed through Starling’s research. In one case, Starling found that Brancusi’s Torso of a Young Woman (1918) was the only piece from the exhibition to enter a collection outside the United States. In 1980, it was acquired by the Kunstmuseum Basel and was previously thought to be owned by collectors Agnes Drey and by Otto Werthheimer. Here, we see the route of the sculpture: passing from artist to collector, and then to institution through the use of “public and private funds”.* Like Torso of a Young Woman (1918), many of the Brancusis in the original exhibition were similarly passed from hand to hand, time and time again. Starling’s main objective in recreating the original installation photographs is to unravel the historical narrative of each sculpture. As a result, the work only exists through the sculptures’ expeditions and the documentation of their paths. Without these networks of circulation and trade, Starling would have not needed to re-photograph and reconfigure the past exhibition. Unwinding these histories simultaneously exposes the economic demeanor of the art. This reveal presents a complex system underlining that an artwork’s trajectory and economics work hand in hand together.

Installation View

Art is first experienced with our senses and is filtered through cognitive processes. These experiences can affect how we view and feel about the artwork, taking on considerations of its form, materiality, content, and context. It therefore exhibits multiplex aspects, which Starling evokes through his research and process-based practice. One Ton II (2005) translates a full network of manufacturing processes through the use of material transformation, evidencing the fact that financial means play a physically and conceptually important role in an artwork. Pictures for an Exhibition (2013) highlights a system of exchanges and distribution, addressing ownership, power, loss, and transaction in the art world. In One Ton II (2005) and Pictures for an Exhibition (2013), Starling decodes the monetary facet of art by exposing the exchanges of industrial processes and the dense network of circulation. Thanks to Starling, the viewer gains a new perspective when analyzing an artwork, and learns to consider factors beyond the form, content, and context of the work. Recognizing that financial means are often an unexposed but an important aspect of art moves that art beyond a simple artistic expression.

* Starling, Simon. “Simon Starling: Collected Works.” Rennie Collection, 2016. Page 16. Print

May 9, 2017

Celebrating Canada

In celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, we are donating 197 paintings, sculptures and mixed-media pieces made by some of the most well-known and established Canadian and international artists working today to the National Gallery of Canada!

This is the largest gift of contemporary art ever received by the National Gallery, with major pieces created by internationally renowned artists, such as Colombian Doris Salcedo, as well as important Vancouver based artists Brian Jungen, Damian Moppett, Rodney Graham, Ian Wallace, and Geoffrey Farmer, who is Canada’s selection for the 57th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia.

May 2, 2017

[Newsletter] New Rennie Museum Exhibition: Ian Wallace: Collected Works

March 23, 2017

Simon Starling on the process of making work, collaborating with craftsmen and his relationship to modernism. Interviewed on the occasion of ‘Simon Starling: Collected Works’ exhibited at Rennie Museum, November 18, 2016 – March 25, 2017.

Simon Starling at Rennie Museum from Rennie Collection on Vimeo.

VIDEO & EDIT: Milena Salazar

March 8, 2017

Recycled Design

by Gregory Woollgar

Simon Starling
detail of Three White Desks, 2007/08

Simon Starling
Three White Desks, 2007/08

Simon Starling refers to his art as storytelling*. He is invested in ideas loaded with specificity and particulars. Viewers can usually only unpack his works by encountering a back story and sifting through the facts. To bridge this distance between the final work and their dense inspirations, Starling writes heavily about his pieces. They are the essential crutch for the museum-goer. The facts and Starling’s writings on his pieces are akin to data, but more specifically they function like recipes. These recipes tell stories; usually the sidebar histories of the famous innovators and projects of Modernism. Most times as a docent, I rely heavily on these texts. In my tours, I discuss the facts of the stories Starling tries to tell, but lack time to discuss their aesthetic intentions. This is very true for his work Three White Desks, (2007/08).

The story of the work orbits a writing desk and the workings of two young creatives in 1930s London. The two creatives are Francis Bacon (1909-1992), the famous British painter, and Patrick White (1912-1990), the Australian writer and recipient of the 1973 Nobel prize for literature. Prior to amassing any artistic success, the two men in their mid-twenties were friends in London, where Francis Bacon worked as a furniture designer for a number of years. Bacon gifted his friend with a writing desk, which remained in White’s possession until he moved to Sydney in 1947 and could not bring the desk due to shipping costs. Once in Sydney, Patrick White wanted to recreate this desk, leading him to commission a cabinetmaker to make a replica based off of a single photograph, without consulting any dimensions or diagrams. The resultant desk was a very imprecise facsimile and possibly could have been offensive to the original designer had he seen it. This small history of a desk tells us this story of a slightly obsessive act of repetition. With a bit of hyperbole, Simon Starling revisits this story of replicating. He recycles this history by contracting three different desk-makers from around the world to create reproductions via a feedback loop. This network begins in Berlin with a copy made from the original photograph of the 1932 desk, which is then photographed via mobile device and sent to Sydney, Australia. A copy of the copy is produced and a new photograph is sent to London, England, where another furniture maker creates a copy of a copy of a copy for the final iteration. Three White Desks displays these three desks together on top of the shipping crates in which they circulate the world. The accompanying photo print helps visualize some, but not all, of the stories invested in the original desk designed by Francis Bacon. This work foregrounds a discussion of copying and the significance of information networks to modern life: the desks begin as material matter turned to immaterial data and then manifest again as tangible objects. It is significant that the original desk is no longer present and the repetitions are created off of this absence. They are simulations of something invisible – there is no original desk anymore. As these desks mutate form from wood to pixels and from code back to material, I think of the transmission of some ideal form. Each desk borrows certain elements from, and the essence of, the lost original, though none are precise copies.

Simon Starling
detail of Three White Desks, 2007/08

Simon Starling’s art also operates aesthetically, a visual reading can direct the viewer to new or deeper interpretations. For as much as the guiding stories enliven his works, attention needs to be paid to the formal aspects of the pieces – they divulge much about Starling’s artistic intentions and gestures. Francis Bacon’s original 1932 desk was modelled after the precedent desks by high modernist designers such as the Bauhaus school and Eileen Grey. The white writing desk is almost purely functional, devoid of anything non-essential. The smoothness of the white-varnished wood reads as streamlined. Bacon’s desk is built of flat planes, each a horizontal rectangle. The geometry of the desk is well-weighted. The open space for sitting is offset to the left, but the cupboards are measured as to create a balanced composition. The longer cupboards to the left appear to be roughly the width of the chair gap plus the narrower cupboards on the right. The only adornment is seen in the highly-polished chrome handles which echo the horizontality of the geometry. The desk is not entirely austere though – the writing surface is smooth white leather, exemplifying Francis Bacon’s eye for simplicity and sleekness.

One of the most striking elements of Francis Bacon’s desk is how acutely Bacon, the young untrained designer, was able to align himself to the fundamentals of modernist design. His desk sits definitely in the tradition of Le Corbusier, Robert Mallet-Stevens, and Marcel Breuer. Their design innovations are numerous and storied in the history of design. Functionality and banality reign in the design of Modernism. The tenants of this philosophy are the simplicity of form, industrialism for mass production and a blankness of expression. Adornment is forgone; each element of an object is essential to its purpose. Nothing is extraneous in the design language of Modernism. Most objects are rendered flat with unexpressive colours and yield a certain utilitarianism. Some of these virtues include notions of universality and internationalism. For example, a desk in England should look the same as a desk in Brazil as both are part of a global design language. This method of material production is efficient to a remarkable degree.

For all of the accomplishments arising from this design philosophy, a miasma lingers. There is a certain tinge of whitewashing and blandness in this style. The negation of artistic self-expression and the insistence on uniformity signals a mild authoritarianism. Modernist design was not envisioned to be a space of exuberance, experimentation, and uniqueness. It is stark. It is curious that Francis Bacon so readily mimics this bland style, when his eventual artistic career is marked by decrying rigidity. His paintings are so expressive and work against the grain of the universalizing and apolitical avant-garde of the designers he copied in his youth. The aesthetic of his furniture – and ultimately Simon Starling’s recycling of the same – is perplexing then considering the richness of Bacon’s signature artistic expression. When Starling returns to Bacon’s desk, Three White Desks is equally dry and formulaic. The work is a simple instruction and administration – a copy turned into an image and back to a copy and so on. Starling does not give space for lively or colourful artistic expression. Rather, each of the desks is the fulfillment of a rigid task or contract.

At the aesthetic core of Simon Starling’s work, we see the reiterations of a fundamentally Modernist work of design. I wonder what Starling hopes to relay in the work. How do we look at this work visually? Are these three repetitions a celebration of the Modernist design innovations, which Francis Bacon so beautifully recreated? Or are we to see this as a senseless exercise of echoes critiquing the bland design language of Modernist design? I chose the latter.

*Albrethsen, Pernille. “Ten Questions: Simon Starling.” Kunstkritikk. Web.

January 16, 2017

[Newsletter] Rodney Graham Catalogue Now Available