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.
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.
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.
This chapter discusses the importance of landscape painting in the formation of early twentieth-century Canadian national identity, in particular the Theosophical aspirations and quest for the genius loci of the Group of Seven painters in Ontario, and Emily Carr in British Columbia. Jeff Wall’s published texts that describe the influence of Carr on his peers’ work, and their desire to work outside of the problematic of colonialism, necessitates this examination. Historian Lorenzo Veracini’s discussions of the many narratives utilized by settler colonial societies to authenticate and rationalize their rights to indigenous land are introduced in relationship to the discursive framing of texts that supported and documented Lawren Harris and Carr’s paintings. The national and regional legacy of spiritually-infused landscape painting was antithetical to young artists and intellectuals like Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace, who came to maturity in the late 1960s, and who were committed to revealing man’s alienation from his industrial environment through Marxist-informed critiques of capitalism.
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.
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.
Vancouver artists’ concerns with discourses of theatricality and female gendered spaces are argued as important links between the defeatured landscapes of the 1968-1971 period and the development of large narrative photographs after 1975. The importance of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades to this historical thread are covered in detail, including the documented impact of his work Étant donnés: 1. La chute d/eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (1946-66) on Jeff Wall’s transition towards the tableau format. Using Étant donnés as a fruitful formal and conceptual segue, the feminist content in several of Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace’s works from the mid-to-late 1970s are analysed. This demonstrates how both artists actively integrated feminist theory and ideas into their visual work, even as they directed critical attention away from it by instead stressing their works relationship the history of European avant-garde critique within modernism.
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.
The historical evidence of a backlash levied against the Vancouver Art Gallery and the perceived hegemony of the Vancouver School that reached a peak in 1989-1990 is addressed in the conclusion. Diverse groups of artists became critical of the very process of discourse formation that this book reflects upon, and became much more vocal about demanding their inclusion in symposia, exhibitions, and critical writing. Unsurprisingly this backlash dovetails with the rise of foreign investment in condominium development and urban gentrification called “Vancouverism” after Expo 86. The discursive territory of Vancouver photo-conceptualism, built upon the image of a defeatured landscape, became ensconced as an international commercial success just as the public spaces of the city were opened up to the ‘global’ reach of neoliberal capitalism, ensuring that the actual features of the city would be less accessible and more expensive to live in for those artists living there.