FLASHES OF LIGHT
Jeff Wall’s pictures.
Issue of 2007-03-05
The Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of the resourceful Vancouver photographic artist Jeff Wall is richly uneven. It suggests less a career than a case history, tracking an intellectually ambitious, morally earnest perfectionist through the fevers and chills of latter-day avant-gardism, in which he has starred for nearly three decades. Rarely are viewers permitted to relax and enjoy the intrinsic gorgeousness of Wall’s signature medium—big color transparencies of cinematically staged, often digitally jiggered scenes, mounted on fluorescent light boxes. The prevailing style is realist, but it is regularly beset by mixed, toilsome aims: Wall has harbored enough motives to impel several artists, and they have tended to get in the way of one another. There is the righteous Wall, who lodges complaints on behalf of racial minorities and the poor: in “Mimic” (1982), a bearded lout makes an insulting gesture to an Asian man on a city street; “An Eviction” (1988, reworked in 2004) is an aerial view of a neighborhood in which a violent dispossession takes place. The erudite Wall imports art-historical and ideological arcana with motifs from Manet, Hokusai, or Walker Evans here and a redolence of German or French critical theory there; Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” (1967), among other strenuous texts, influenced Wall’s adoption of commercial signage techniques, in a spirit of criticizing mass culture. Wall the director deploys Brechtian alienation effects, to a fault, in his use of models and actors: in “The Goat” (1989), the stilted postures of four boys bullying a fifth quash any possible drama. Finally, there is Wall the lurking suitor of beauty in landscape, cityscape, interior, and still-life. He’s my favorite, and, lately, the most prominent. The retrospective and a concurrent show of notably strong new pictures at the Marian Goodman gallery give a strange impression of development in reverse: an artist doing his relatively uncomplicated early work last.
Wall was born in Vancouver in 1946. His mother and his father, a doctor, encouraged his early passion for art. By the age of fourteen, Wall was painting in his own studio, in a shed in the family’s back yard. Exposure to recent big-time art, by Jackson Pollock and others, at the Seattle World’s Fair, in 1962, fired his ambition. While studying art history at the University of British Columbia, he switched from painting to recondite exercises in photo-and-text Conceptualism, embracing newly fashionable ideas that—as he recalled them, with ambivalence, in a 2003 interview—“the art of the past was ‘obsolete’ (to use the Leninist terminology of the time) and that the only serious possibilities lay in reinventing the avant-garde project of going beyond ‘bourgeois art.’ ” In 1970, his work appeared in MOMA’s landmark Conceptualism show, “Information,” but by then, feeling himself at a dead end, he had stopped making art; he did not resume for seven years. Instead, he continued his studies at the august Courtauld Institute of Art, in London, where he read voraciously in philosophy and critical theory, undertook a thesis on Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, and aspired to make films. But, back in Canada, an attempt at collaborative filmmaking with some friends came to nothing. Exacting standards—it seems fair to term him a control freak—evidently made him a poor team player. Wall taught art history and theory in Halifax and Vancouver, and began to explore staged color photography. The idea of using light boxes came to him, in what admiring critics have liked to celebrate as a road-to-Damascus flash, on a bus trip in Spain in 1977.
I well remember the impact of the first sumptuous and esoteric Walls, including “Picture for Women” (1979); more than five feet high by almost seven feet wide, it presents the artist (slim, dark-eyed, worried-looking) and a taciturn young woman, both in street clothes, in front of a mirrored wall that reflects a studio but, disconcertingly, not them, and has a big view camera facing out at dead center. The work was inspired by Manet’s dizzying painting of a barmaid standing before a mirror, “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère,” and by Marxist and feminist analyses of that work by the art historian T. J. Clark and the critic Laura Mulvey (known for her scolding critiques of “the male gaze”). The technical trickiness and semiotic density of Wall’s picture daunt the mind even as its handsomeness holds the eye. “Any moderately serious student of his art . . . faces a considerable stack of homework,” MOMA’s chief photography curator, Peter Galassi, remarks in a thorough, levelheaded introduction to the show’s catalogue. It may be enough to know that, in theory-drunk circles of the period, any sort of aesthetic appeal could be regarded as a stratagem of “late capitalist” ideology or some other wrinkle of malign social power. (The enemy’s identity was never entirely clear.) Artists were obliged to signal knowingness on this score. If critical paranoia poisoned visual and imaginative pleasure, that was unavoidable: a toll of enlightened consciousness. A lot of preachily condescending work resulted, and Wall was not exempt. But a certain quotient of unauthorized excitement, in “wow” effects of what amounts to single-frame cinematography, always set him a bit apart, as did a restlessly experimental drive.
“The Storyteller” (1986) is an imposing picture, more than fourteen feet wide. Six negligently clothed Native Americans lounge under or, on a grassy and wooded slope, beside a highway overpass. One, a woman, transfixes two others with what she is saying across a dying campfire. The historical irony—of a tribal custom maintained on expropriated and ruined land—is painfully obvious and, coming from a mandarin white artist, borderline presumptuous. The self-conscious poses of the characters seem meant to undercut easy interpretation. We are to know that Wall knows that we know that the work is fictional—quotation marks set in quotation marks, and, if we detect the odd quotation from a quotational painting by Manet, we may go straight to the head of the class. If you like this type of heady gaming, good luck. It exasperates me. But I gazed long and raptly at the wonderful textures of spongy grass, dully reflective flagstones, and dreaming concrete. I love the look of that mighty overpass and would gladly toss out the figures to behold it without distraction. Does this response discover a further, subtle, conscience-needling irony? I don’t care. I’ve ceased to buy whatever is being sold by the picture’s maker, who seems to be engaged in special pleading as much for his right to manipulate me as for the cause of displaced Indians.
Wall’s best work, which has appeared with greater frequency since about 1990, does more with less. Not that it lightens up—the artist brings inexplicable solemnity even to still-lifes of beans, an octopus, or a bar of soap, all in flavorfully dilapidated interiors. (The shots do have elaborate historical and critical pedigrees—drawing on obscure work from the thirties by the German artist Wols and manifesting academically voguish notions of “abjection” and “the formless”—but, for a change, we may remain comfortably innocent of them.) “A View from an Apartment” (2004-05) smacks of a real and satisfying movie: two women in modest modern digs, full of piquant social and economic cues, with a postcardlike, picture-window view of a busy harbor. It’s almost fun. Also pleasing is the anecdote of a woman inspecting an auction catalogue in a snootily decorated room, disrupted by a glimpse of city street, sporting fortuitous patches of primary colors, outside the window. It is a fine photograph.
Tastes may honestly differ apropos the painstaking illustrations of scenes from novels by Ralph Ellison and Yukio Mishima. I take it on faith that Wall has represented all one thousand three hundred and sixty-nine light bulbs in the protagonist’s basement lair which Ellison mentions in the prologue to “The Invisible Man.” I prefer my own old, surreal imagining of that space, which Ellison hardly describes, to the picture’s nitpicky realism. But I’m impressed by Wall’s bravery in tackling literary illustration, perhaps the single most despised genre in the lexicon of modern art. Firmly absorbing, meanwhile, are his views of luggage-burdened pedestrians on a featureless bridge and of young people loitering on the sidewalk outside a gritty night club. Digital manipulation emphasizes the placement and the posture of the figures just enough to give them a speaking presence, and the stormy sky of the first picture and the nocturnal cast of the second breathe poetry. And I can’t get enough of “Rear-View, Open Air Theater” (2005), at Goodman: a decrepit but noble old wooden structure, bearing signs of emergency repair and sorely in need of more, that becomes a moving allegory of cultural aspiration besieged by callous time. Little by little, Wall is edging out of the collegiate hothouse of smart-aleck ideas and into a (if not the) world.