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The unsettled landscapes of Vancouver photo-conceptualism

Engendering an avant-garde: the unsettled landscapes of Vancouver photo-conceptualism is the first book to comprehensively examine the origins of Vancouver photo-conceptualism in its regional context between 1968 and 1990. Employing discourse analysis of texts written by and about artists, feminist critique, and settler colonial theory, the book discusses the historical transition from artists’ creation of ‘defeatured landscapes’ between 1968-1971 to their cinematographic photographs of the late 1970s, and the backlash against such work by other artists in the late 1980s. This book analyses Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace’s strategic framing of their photography as avant-garde, and considers their rejection of the history of regional landscape painting (such as Emily Carr’s work), the rejection of the counter-cultural experiments of their peers, and the integration of feminist challenges to figurative representation into their work. It is the first study to provide a structural accounting for why the group remains all-male. It accomplishes this by demonstrating that the importation of a European discourse of avant-garde activity, which assumed masculine social privilege and public activity, effectively excluded women artists from membership. In doing so, it intervenes in formalist art critics’ validation of the technical innovation of the Vancouver School as a universal phenomenon of global importance by revealing the social exclusions that empowered it in the past and continue to invest it with authority. This book will appeal to scholars and students interested in Canadian art history, photography, the history of the avant-garde, and the role visual culture plays in establishing and maintaining control over discursive and physical territories.

Chapter 4 recounts the emergence of the theory and practice of a “Defeatured Landscape,” the name given in 1970 to a new urban semiotic that would constitute photo-conceptual artists self-defined counter tradition to those cultural practices deemed uncritical, expressionist, and mythical that were explored in Chapter 3. NETCO’s Ruins (1968) and Portfolio of Piles (1968) are examined as important precursors to the defeatured landscape. Dennis Wheeler, Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace and Christos Dikeakos’ art and writing are discussed as examples of defeatured landscapes in relation to their influences: American conceptual artist peers like Dan Graham; Concrete Poetry; awareness of the vehicular landscape; and Surrealism and its legacy in the psycho-geography and dérives of the Situationist International. This history is set against two contrasting examples: the real political conflicts of land development and associated financial speculation going on at the same time in the city; and an accounting of the erotic female bodies who often populate the otherwise defeatured landscapes of the photo-conceptualists. These examples show how the social politics of public space in Vancouver are left out of avant-garde representations of the city through the discursive framing of a landscape not so defeatured after-all.

in Engendering an avant-garde

The international and local feminist avant-garde of the 1970s is discussed in Chapter 6. Vancouver women’s rejection of canonical art history, their development of alternative distribution and exhibition systems for promoting artwork, and their psychoanalytic critique of the male gaze all implicitly challenged the legitimacy of the theoretical and historical project of Vancouver photo-conceptualism. These threats would thus be selectively integrated into the new male-authored photography. Historical and contemporary critical responses to Marian Penner Bancroft and Liz Magor’s work are also analysed, which through contrary-example further establishes the male-gendered character of avant-garde discourse formation in Vancouver.

in Engendering an avant-garde
Abstract only

The central argument of the book is introduced; that the counter-tradition Jeff Wall helped develop with other artists in Vancouver has included a gendered bifurcation of space since its earliest incarnation in 1970 as the "defeatured landscape." The introduction contains brief descriptions of Wall and his peers’ early work in relation to Wall’s international position as leader of the Vancouver School of Photo-Conceptualism; a brief discussion of existing theory about the development of avant-garde movements; and the necessity of understanding the avant-garde in the context of wider social contests of power, in particular settler colonial control over land and male control over women’s bodies and representations of them. The introduction also summarizes the need to intervene in current histories of avant-garde practice, dominant narratives that continue to frame male artists achievements in formal terms divested of the power dynamics that engender them or result from them.

in Engendering an avant-garde

This analysis of two of Jeff Wall's most important early photographic transparencies highlights the fact that his subject matter can be understood as a male artist's control of what is imagined as female-gendered physical and theoretical space. The initiation and subsequent extension of this operation in European and American critical discourse about his work is discussed in relationship to anthropological research on settler colonial societies’ territorial conflicts; specifically settlers’ need to develop cultural narratives that rationalize their control over other populations within a given geographic area. Such an approach contrasts with the prevailing commentaries by other critics, some of which are discussed at length (Donald Kuspit, Arielle Pélenc, Kaja Silverman and Michael Fried). These critics’ analyses of Wall’s work downplay or ignore the feminist subject matter in the work in favour of discussing the images' relationship to the avant-garde potential of technical reproduction or to the history of modern painting.

in Engendering an avant-garde

Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace’s rejection of ‘home’ and ‘homeland,’ and the primacy of the manifesto as an important polemical tool in framing one’s work, are explored in Chapter 3 in relation to Wall’s art history master’s thesis on the Berlin Dada group, which established “myth” as an anti-critical cultural practice that was broadly applied to much of the cultural activity then active in Vancouver. Vancouver’s seeming “lack of history,” the existence of back-to-the-land intentional communities living outside of the urban centre, the proliferation of other performance and media based art groups, and the influence of visiting American artist Robert Smithson’s earthworks are all examined as cultural expressions deemed a-historical or romantic by photo-conceptualists.

in Engendering an avant-garde
The formation and development of the Walker Art Gallery

The opening of Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery provided the city with one of the country’s most modern art galleries, complementing the impressive neoclassical architecture that had emerged around the famous St. George’s Hall. Yet a gallery aimed at promoting popular art education was decidedly unpopular with many of Liverpool’s population. The partisan nature of the gift by well-known brewer and Conservative A.B. Walker was flavoured with corruption and revealed the difficulties that municipal art institutions faced when accepting financial support from controversial local donors. It also revealed that although municipalisation promised a more democratic age, financial limitations on local authorities meant that elite influence in the local art world remained strong.

in High culture and tall chimneys
The alternative visions of the Whitworth and Harris galleries

The Whitworth Gallery and Manchester and the Harris Museum and Gallery in Preston provided an alternative vision for the future of art galleries. Rejecting what they saw as excessive commercialism and populism these galleries defined different approaches to public art. This chapter examines these approaches and assesses both their successes and their cultural significance for the region. It also raises question about the nature of ‘public art’ – could it be genuinely inclusive, while being led by an essentially small group of cultural leaders?

in High culture and tall chimneys
The diverse origins of the municipal art gallery movement

While early regional galleries were the product of private initiative, the growth of municipal government in the 1840s encouraged several towns to develop art galleries as both mass educational tools and symbols of their political independence and cultural sophistication. In the 1850s the Salford Museum and Art Gallery was so successful its visitor numbers rivalled those of the British Museum and it was an initiative soon copied by neighbouring towns of Warrington and Stockport. This chapter explores the people and ideologies behind these pioneering galleries and how their values were reflected in exhibitions and patterns of collecting. It also reveals how they became quickly outdated as fashions and popular culture changed.

in High culture and tall chimneys
Art institutions and urban society in Lancashire, 1780–1914

During the nineteenth century industrial Lancashire became a leading national and international art centre. In 1857 Manchester hosted the international Art Treasures Exhibition at Old Trafford, arguably the single most important art exhibition every held. By the end of the century almost every major Lancashire town possessed an art gallery, while Lancashire art schools and artists were recognised nationally and internationally. This book examines the reasons for the remarkable rise of visual art in Lancashire and its relationship to the rise of the commercial and professional classes who supported it. Lancashire is rarely seen by outsiders as a major cultural centre but the creation of a network of art institutions facilitated a vibrant cultural life and shaped the civic identity of its people. The modern industrial towns of Lancashire often looked to the cultural history of other great civilisations to understand the rapidly changing world around them. Roscoe’s Liverpool of the late eighteenth century emulated Medici’s Florence, Fairbairn’s Manchester looked to Rome, while a century later Preston built an art gallery as a tribute to Periclean Athens. Yet the art institutions and movements of the county were also distinctively modern. Many embraced the British fashions of the time, while some looked to new art movements abroad. Art institutions also became a cultural battleground for alternative visions of the future, from those that embraced modern mass production technologies and ‘commercial art’ to those that feared technology and capitalism would destroy artistic creativity and corrode standards of excellence.