Written 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 Using techniques of montage, staged photography, and art historical reference, Wallace established protocols for photoconceptual art that were explored by his contemporaries for years to come.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.