Wall has been making pictures since the early 70s when, after a brief time in London where he received a research degree in art history at the Courtauld Institute, he returned to Vancouver and began making the light-box mounted transparencies he is best known for (see above). The transparencies are large, painterly reconstructions of famous scenes, with attention to the mundane aspects that signaled contemporary west coast life at the tail end of the resource-based economy. The subtext to the images is neither necessary, nor evident to an untrained eye. There was, and is, clearly more here than meets the eye, a notion that has become increasingly apparent as Wall has become more commanding in his work, expansive, and narrative, always with a great sense of anthropological and social witnessing.
The cinematic quality of Wall’s work has grown as the technology and, perhaps the intertextuality of his inquiries grows. He often describes himself as a cinematographer--evoking a sense of movement. Filmic movement. What's particularly intriguing about this idea with Wall however, is that the way he uses frames is entirely different. Each large canvas is made up of smaller images, meticulously "sewn" together. So the narrative works on the surface of the image, but the frames come together to create a whole image. A completely different idea of "film," "frame," and movement.
Works such as "Dead Troops Talk" (1991–2) and "A Sudden Gust of Wind" (after Hokusai) mimic a photojournalistic style, but they are also strongly reminiscent of 19th century art (seen here courtesy of the NY Times), and offer compelling critiques of disassociative modern living. Like fellow Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, it is partly the scale of the work that is so pleasurable and reassuring. There is simply something absolutely confident about taking up so much space, and to do so with historical depth. In a style that others--Gregory Crewdson or Cindy Sherman--would help make uncomfortably familiar by the late 1990s, Wall's staged portraits, his reconstructions, called into question the assumptions of realism.
When I first discovered Wall's work at The Vancouver Art Gallery in the early 1990's, I was struck by several things--size, light, scale, of course, but also his refusal to omit. This notion of "including everything," is now virtually cliche, but the combination of grandeur, locale and absolute witnessing (the tiny blade of glass, the turquoise bread bag clip), was stunning to me then and now. There is a tenderness to it as much as it seems "mean." The size was daunting too. In fact I remember a fellow photographer I was attending the gallery with suggesting a kind of grandiosity: Photographs should not be that big, nor should they resemble advertisements, the kind one sees in light boxes in malls... But of course Wall was taking back that size, composition, and image from the advertisers who had sanitized and enlarged ourselves in unobtainable ways.
"The Storyteller," with its harsh depiction of Vancouver's Downtown East Side was one of the first images I had seen that didn't "pretty up" the skyline, that seemed in fact, to amplify the devastation as much as it honored the subject and subjects. Such subject matter, if covered at all, was usually done in a kind of voyeuristic way, with expectations of "pity" or "empathy." "The Storyteller," does neither--though as one critic points out Wall's images often "reveal" as much as they "veil." And the "Storyteller," honors this idea of sharing, of narrative, and again, of inclusion. Social documents are often chronicles--as fellow Vancouver photographer Lincoln Clarkes shows us with his collection of images, Heroines, about the drug addicted women of the downtown east side. Though Wall is certainly part of a burgeoning west coast photography scene that includes major figures such as Stan Douglas, Roy Arden, Mandelbrot, Judy Radul, Kelly Wood, Roy Kiyooka, and a vibrant conceptual scene showcasing the likes of Brian Jungen, he is also the leader. Though I should add that his influence is not only felt on the west coast, and that perhaps he has done more than anyone to make Vancouver's mercurial beauty internationally known.
But back to this idea of veil, which in Wall's world is more about tantalizing than obscuring. And by tantalizing I suggest that in his view the most arbitrary settings on the planet can be scenes of great triumph and beauty as much as devastation and bewilderment. In "The Drain," for instance (which I don't recall seeing at MoMA alas), shows us two young girls on a summer day standing on stones in front of a large culvert--where the water is coming from we're not sure and where there innocence is going we're not sure either, but it is certainly going.... But practically speaking, in those days Vancouver still had many open ditches and drains, and this sense of the world's arteries erupting, as sexuality, as the darker shades of life erupt in puberty, seemed somehow emblematic of suburban childhoods in the late 70s and 80s. These images, if nothing else, made the Vancouver Art Gallery show significant for me and I've never forgotten them. Here was a much different representation of west coast life than I was accustomed to seeing in any print or visual media. Take the recent Fred Herzog exhibit at the VAG, which offers spectacular Kodachrome images, historically and culturally important, but predictable in composition and subject matter.
The show at MoMA--which was at the Tate last fall--is fairly comprehensive, with many of my favorite images--"Eviction Struggle," "The Drain," "A Sudden Gust of Wind," "Storyteller," "Mimic," "Milk," two images that have become iconic Wall by now, and "A View From An Apartment." All are online thanks to MoMA, and are accompanied by notes from the artist. Having seen several shows at Marian Goodman over the last year I had already processed the shock of the smaller, abstract images, the composition of barren spaces--a bar of soap, an octopus lying on what seems to be an old cannery washing board. Images such as "The Flooded Grave" (1998-2000) are photomontages, as discussed above, and as such one can see the seams where the image has been collaged to make a whole. This technique, as Wall points out, as largely been about deconstructing images, but here we see it being used to maintain a sense of whole. "Experimental Traditionalism," Wall calls it.
One image I hadn't seen before was "Morning Cleaning: Barcelona," a luscious modernist reverie, reflected somewhat in the face of this woman:
A study in lines, both the simple modernist lines of the architecture and furnishings--contrasted by the veined marble, arranged to intensify the patterns, creating almost alien like shapes. It takes a while to see through the window washer's soapy film to catch the sculpture of the naked woman in the courtyard fountain. "He seems to love the sweepers," my friend said, and there is truth in that. "Someone has to mop up the mess of the world." And this is an important point, and one that the west coast photographers seem to have in common--a sense of social responsibility, not a hermetic world (a la Cindy Sherman), or an overly-sexualized world (Gergory Crewdson, Mike Kelley), but always a working world--whether the work sweeping "Volunteer" (1996), "Morning in Barcelona," restoring "Restoration" (1993) or simply "surviving," as we see in "Tran Duv Van" (1998-2003), over and over again, the regal quotidian--and that offers more hope than one might initially feel when encountering Wall's world.
Jeff Wall/Museum of Modern Art
But perhaps the most stunning image for me was also one of Wall's most recent. After “Spring Snow” by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34 (2000–05) shown above, is a master class in lighting, and reminds us that the beauty of the light boxes isn't simply technical or gimicky. Beyond the light box, Wall applies light in delicate strokes. The hair, the buttons on the back of the dress, the gold bell (is that a bell?), these are so reminiscent of 19th century realism it's impossible for one--no matter how close you get--not to imagine brush strokes. This is lighting at the most controlled level. "Delicate, narratively suggestive, opulent... " I read somewhere that it takes Wall a year or more on average to do a photograph, so perhaps now we'll see even more work, and of larger proportions. How rare and fabulous it is to see a huge, mid-career show such as this then, and be left with a tingle of excitement about the work to come, and if "Spring Snow" offers a glimpse of new direction, so much the better.
Jeff Wall continues at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, to May 14.
Jeff Wall continues at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, to May 14.