December 20, 2017

The Poignancy of Plywood

by Sophia Lapres

Ian Wallace
Installation view

Ian Wallace has long engaged with representations of locale. Many of his works draw from Vancouver’s urban environment and history, and focus primarily on questions of space. These pieces often feature large monochromatic sections, sometimes printed with plywood patterns. I have found these plywood monoprints to be particularly interesting aspects of Wallace’s composition, as they impart materiality. Plywood, after being sourced from fallen timber, is converted into a more versatile material through processing. This material is then used to expand the urban environment, which creates further encroachment into the natural landscape. The artist’s use of the plywood print not only challenges our relationship to the materials used in the spaces we inhabit, but also reflects on Canada’s history.

Wallace creates a dialogue with Canadian history through the symbol of plywood. Canada’s dense forests define the country’s identity. The vast expanses of land are what originally drew Europeans to colonize the country; Canada’s spaciousness and natural resources, including timber, were hugely appealing to the colonizers. In his work, Wallace uses the familiar texture of wood grain to evoke both artificial and natural environments. The plywood board’s surface is dynamic, each ply’s wood grain is warped after its unraveling from the cylindrical trunk and punctuated with knots, recalling the material’s original form. We can fully appreciate Wallace’s symbolic use of plywood within the three monochrome monoprints, Monoprint With Burgundy, Monoprint With Mustard, and Monoprint with Green, all dating 1990. Each canvas features a monochrome stamped in black ink with an imprint of a plywood board. The entire space of the canvas is dedicated to the plywood’s impression. The three canvases mimic the dimensions of a standard plywood board while simultaneously evoking the monumental scale of Canadian landscape paintings. Landscape painting is regarded as European Canada’s most successful foray into artistic production. The Group of Seven’s landscape paintings made a huge contribution to the country’s art history. The three monoprints’ monumentality mimics the dimensions often employed by the Group of Seven painters. Their scale is reinforced through an unusually high wall mount: the three works dominate the space.

Ian Wallace
Construction Site (Barcelona Series I-V), 1991

Guests often remark upon the wood grain texture, it comes across as both familiar and unfamiliar—its source material sitting at the tip of your tongue. The material of plywood is at once organic and engineered. Wallace takes advantage of this duality in Construction Site (Barcelona Series I-V) (1991), a work he created while in Spain. The colossal work explores the relationship between the natural and artificial aspects of the cityscape. In depicting his current environment, Wallace continues the practice of engaging with one’s landscape. Five photographs of buildings under various stages of construction are bookended by narrow plywood impressed stripes, presented on a stretched canvas surface. These sections have been interpreted as telephone poles, tree trunks, or the pattern left in concrete after concrete forming. I think these various interpretations speak to the ubiquitous nature of lumber. Processed wood is integral to the urban environment’s development. The canvas representing the dead tree and a cement truck in the near background makes this concept especially clear. Construction Site considers the source of the city’s building blocks and the effects these extractions and developments have on the natural environment. The creation of new spaces for human use inevitably causes the destruction of a prior environment, either natural or urban. Construction Site depicts these transitory moments— mounds of earth, raw materials and construction equipment create a chaotic atmosphere of change and human influence. The Construction Site (Olympic Village) (2011) applies these concepts to the context of Vancouver through a similar compositional treatment of his photographic material.

Wallace’s combination of plywood prints and photographs in collaged compositions draw attention to materiality and space. In Clayoquot Protest (1993-1995) Wallace presents a photo-collage featuring nine canvases, each with a section of photojournalistic imagery taken by the artist. The work functions as a documentary, we are presented with meditations on human interferences within their environments. The photographs depict 200 squatters protesting the clear-cut logging of Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia. The Clayoquot protest heralded the beginning of a new appreciation of land for non-Aboriginal Canadians. Wallace’s choice to document what became the biggest act of civil disobedience in Canada to date solidifies this moment within the contemporary art realm.* The artist departs from a purely aesthetic engagement within his art making to investigate an influential moment in British Columbia’s history.

Ian Wallace
The Quarry, Serre di Rapolano I and II, 1998

Wallace’s politically minded examinations of the environment that started with the Clayoquot Protest can be found in his later works. The Quarry, Serre di Rapolano I and II (1998) combines this political aspect with an aesthetic use of the plywood print. In it, Wallace dissects a single photograph of an Italian marble quarry into two and the gaps left by this dissection are filled with plywood monoprinted rectangles. Wallace pays special attention to the pattern of the printed wood grain, allowing for a knot in the wood to mimic a sun or moon in the sky, and a seam to double as a horizon line. Through his attention to the material, the quarry’s role as a space for resource extraction becomes the central focus. The deconstruction of the landscape to allow for the extraction of material resources is mimicked through the physical cutting of the image into several pieces. The plywood’s symbolic role within Wallace’s practice reinforces this attention to the landscape and resource extraction, setting this environmentally concerned work within the canon of similarly minded pieces. Drawing from the same subject matter as Canadian landscape painters, Wallace broadens the dialogue of landscape representation to include the medium of photography.

Wallace’s works read as public acknowledgements of the environment, both artificial and natural. Their attention to materials provides a meditation on the underlying structures and processes that influence our cities and ecosystems. The “concrete jungle” can exist only through the razing of the natural environment, something that Wallace’s use of plywood understands and questions. Investigations of the natural and urban environments have always been central to Wallace’s work. Our world’s current environmental state adds poignancy to Wallace’s works that only seem to become more relevant with time, developing patinas of reference.

*Tindall, David. “Twenty Years After the Protest, What we Learned From the Clayoquot Sound”. The National, Web.

November 24, 2017

Exhibition walkthrough of ‘Simon Starling: Collected Works’ at Rennie Museum, November 18, 2016 – March 25, 2017.

Exhibition Walkthrough: Simon Starling from Rennie Collection on Vimeo.

VIDEO & EDIT: Milena Salazar

November 22, 2017

Poolside Perspectives

by Sophia Lapres

Ian Wallace
La Piscina, Valencia, 1990

Ian Wallace’s large scale photographic works explore the intersection between the mediums of painting and photography. His works feature both photographic and painted moments, but what is the primary medium of these works? Most of the canvases’ surface is dedicated to the photograph— the coloured bars read more as addendum. Interestingly, Wallace refers to these large scale works as paintings, explicitly defining these works as more than pure photography. This exploration of the intersection of the two mediums is cited again and again as integral to Wallace’s career but it was not until recently that I began to fully appreciate the concept. The investigation of intersections is especially apparent and succinctly explored in La Piscina, Valencia (1990). It is through a collection of influences drawn from the tradition of painting that Wallace’s practice can be understood.

Wallace’s sunbathed photograph reveals a tiled walkway in Valencia, Spain. The work is composed of a photograph laminated on canvas and bookended with painted monochromes. La Piscina, though titled “the pool” in Spanish, does not provide us with any visual indications of a swimming pool. Yet, the image is convincing of a poolside. I imagine the pool sits slightly to the left of the frame, cropped from view. Wallace’s choice to indicate the subject of the photograph through the title instead of visual representation is an interesting one. Upon the mention of a pool, images of turquoise water and wafts of chlorine swim into your mind’s eye. Despite not visually depicting the pool, the evocation of “pool” in the title is effective in convincing us that the pool lies just out of sight. Guests to the museum point towards darker areas along the tiled walkway and interpret it as water from the pool. These darkened areas could be anything, but the pool is such a familiar setting that the experience of water dripping down your legs and staining the concrete is an easy narrative to apply to the image.

Fra Angelico
The Annunciation, 1437-1446
(image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wallace’s artistic practice has long been influenced by traditional art history, often appropriating previous traditions to establish a link between old and new methods of art making. La Piscina, for example, depicts an arcade space that formally references spaces typical of Italian Renaissance paintings. The early modern period of the Renaissance often featured depictions of deep recessive space, particularly spaces that reference earlier architectural tradition. A resurgence of interest in Greek and Roman antiquity marked the changing visual culture of the period. One of many paintings that feautres this influence is Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation (1437-1446) that draws from classic architecture to inform the environment of the sitters. The two figures of the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel occupy a raised platform, sheltered from the exterior by a roof supported with columns. The covered walkway, or arcade, is a feature of basilicas, common in old Greek and Roman homes and public buildings. Basilicas, in turn, influenced the layout of Catholic churches. Though the Renaissance marked a gradual turn to secularized culture, many early Renaissance paintings featured religious iconography. Therefore, in choosing to depict the traditional space of the arcade instead of a more contemporary architectural space, Wallace directly sets himself within the art historical cannon.

To further situate himself within the tradition of art making and image composition, Wallace’s photographic piece offers a textbook example of one-point perspective. If you follow the lines of the ceiling, floor, and bench, you’ll see that they angle towards the same point. This point of convergence is called the vanishing point, taking its name from the point on the horizon where objects disappear into the distance. The blue vents on the right recede gradually, the planks on the green bench angle towards the vanishing point in perfect parallel with the line of the right wall and the tiled floor’s convergence. The space between the columns shrinks, as do the tiles on the floor themselves. This mathematically derived method of depicting space is again a tradition originating in the Renaissance period. Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation employs this illusionistic tactic feigning deep space. The space between each column on the left shrinks gradually towards the vanishing point, just as the space between each column shrinks with distance in La Piscina. The work reads like a window opening into the space of the arcade passageway. Wallace has created a convincing space in terms of depth— the image reads like a space that one could walk into despite its presentation on the flat surface of a canvas.

Although Wallace and his peers were all engaged in the exploration of large scale photography, Wallace was the only member of the Vancouver School that used canvas to mount his photographs. His contemporaries used light boxes, C-prints, and billboards, but Wallace chose to use a material with significant history, intentionally continuing this tradition into his contemporary practice. The canvas’ grainy material textures the entire surface, creating a unifying effect between the planes of the painted panels and the photolaminate. Because the surface is the same texture across the entire image, the boundaries between photograph and painting are blurred through this textural consistency. The grain of the canvas and the graininess of the photographic image mimic one another. Wallace’s photographs are taken using a handheld camera, he does not use an elaborate set up, or even a tripod. As a result of this his photographs often become blurred and softened when blown up. Instead of detracting from the image’s visual aesthetic, this grainy effect enhances the image. The softness of the image and the pastel colour scheme give the photograph a painterly quality.

Installation View

Wallace’s photographs are always accompanied by painted monochrome sections and La Piscina is no exception. La Piscina, in my mind, presents the most visually successful use of this formula in the Rennie Museum exhibition. The yellow and white in the photograph are repeated both in colour and form in the monochrome bars. The yellow paint matches the yellows present in the photograph, found both in the monochrome behind the glass and the buckets on the floor at the end of the passageway. The white monochrome parallels the columns and the white painted monochromes behind the glass. These visual pairings of colour and shape blur the boundaries of the photographic plane, creating a continuation of image into the painted monochrome segments. Through the application of paint in a solid bar to the surface of the canvas, Wallace paints, but only in the most fundamental sense. Painting is in essence the application of colour to a surface, therefore, Wallace’s monochromes act as symbolic gestures for painting. This element of Wallace’s practice is the most literal aspect of the intersection between the mediums of painting and photography.

With regards to the monochrome bars on the far wall: they were neither installed by Wallace, nor did they inspire him to begin painting monochrome bars. I would think that it was the presence of these monochromes that drove Wallace to photograph the space. The visual harmony between the various greens and yellows, paired with the monochrome’s import to his artistic practice was likely fascinating to encounter. To be met with a fundamental aspect of his practice, photograph it, and repeat these monochromes himself within the finished work creates a self-reflexivity within La Piscina. This self-reflexivity is beautifully allegorized in Wallace’s silhouetted reflection in the glass.

Wallace’s understanding of previous painterly practices and traditions paired with his use of material and subject matter allows for a work of art that is self-aware. Through the visual references to Italian Renaissance art, the photograph continues the practice of representation into a contemporary field. This, paired with Wallace’s repetition of the monochrome bars captured through the lens of his camera not only serves to successfully create an intersection between painting and photography but also solidify his practice within art history.

November 7, 2017

[Newsletter] Rennie Speaker Series Presents: Gary Simmons

November 1, 2017

[Newsletter] A Warm Goodbye to Ian Wallace & Programming News!

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