The Great Wall

Born in this city in 1946 to a physician father and a stay-at-home mom, Jeff Wall attended local schools before enrolling at the University of British Columbia, where he completed a bachelor’s and a master’s degree (a PhD at London’s Courtauld Institute was left unfinished). His artistic impulse began early, inspired by a series of large-scale abstract paintings he saw on a 1962 trip to Seattle, but it was at UBC that he became interested in the magazine pieces of American “conceptual”artists Dan Graham and Robert Smithson, and the photomontages of German artist John Heartfield. Of equal importance to him was the work of local artist and then UBC instructor Ian Wallace.

Wall, whose studio practice had included monochrome painting before he gravitated to writing, bookwork, and an attempt at feature film, saw in Wallace’s photomontages a road out of the painting end game. However, it wasn’t until a 1977 European vacation (Wall had not made art in seven years) that he had his epiphany. Awed by the Prado’s Velázquezes and Goyas—and the back-lit advertising boxes lining Madrid’s streets—the artist plotted his first large-scale Cibachrome. A year later The Destroyed Room debuted in the window of Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft’s photo-based Nova Gallery on Fourth Avenue, and a new Vancouver Art was born—one distinct from the abstracted landscape paintings of Jack Shadbolt and the art-as-life manifestations of the Western Front.

In the 30 years since then, Wall has achieved a level of critical, institutional, and commercial success unequaled by any Canadian artist, living or dead. How this happened is an ongoing parlour game played by artists, critics, historians, and curators the world over. Indeed, one Dutch art historian, Sven Lutticken, opened a 2004 essay entitled “The Story of Art According to Jeff Wall” with the line “If Jeff Wall did not exist, he would have to be invented.”

According to Lutticken, “an astonishingly varied group of fellow artists and critics agree that Wall has produced one of the most crucial oeuvres of the last 25 years.” But the flattery stops there. Lutticken cites Wall’s writings and his tendency, since the mid 1990s, to “place his own work securely in art history.” The historian goes on to reference Wall’s detractors, most notably October magazine’s Benjamin Buchloh, who accuses Wall of pandering to the omnipresent “spectacle culture” that pollutes our everyday life. As well, the various pedagogical strategies and counter-narratives Wall deploys as an artist, teacher, and historian to ensure that his place in art history remains safe.

What Lutticken doesn’t talk about is the city Wall grew up in, and its historical relationship to art and artists. When it comes to Vancouver art, it is the artists (and the architects) who have always held sway. From the first commercial contemporary art gallery (New Design), opened in 1955 by architect Abe Rogatnik and Alvin Balkind, to artists and architects such as Jack Shadbolt and Arthur Erickson lobbying the Canada Council in 1966 to fund the seminal artist collective Intermedia. From Nova Gallery in the 1970s to the Wall-led revolt against it and the VAG’s 1983 Art & Artists show. From ongoing curation by Roy Arden, Stan Douglas, and Ken Lum to Douglas’s groundbreaking Vancouver Anthology conference and 1991 publication. The list goes on.

This is intended not to highlight the limitations of Vancouver’s dedicated directors, curators, art historians, and art writers (nor, for that matter, the self-directed tendencies of its artists) but to show how important artists are to the cultural ecology of the city—and why, when it comes to the Vancouver Art Gallery and its attempt to relocate after 25 years in a courthouse, they need an exhibition from Jeff Wall more than he needs an exhibition from them.