Home » Thoughts on Jeff Wall…from the FT

Thoughts on Jeff Wall…from the FT

Exquisitely contrived disorder

By Jackie Wullschlager in the Financial Times

Published: December 14 2007

Jeff Wall, Picture for Women, 1979. Image: courses.washington.edu

What happens if a politicised conceptual artist loves beauty? The Canadian artist Jeff Wall launched his career with “Picture for Women” – a clever photographic reprise of “A Bar at the Folies Bergère” – in the 1970s, a time when aesthetic seduction roughly approximated to the evils of capitalism. Wall was too intelligent, innovative and ethically committed to ignore the current sensibility, but too finely tuned as an artist, and too steeped in art history’s pleasures, to accept the taboo on beauty. So he came up with a method of image-making that referenced Manet as well as Donald Judd, Cézanne as well as Dan Flavin, and revolutionised late 20th-century art photography.

Manet’s “Folies Bergère” confronts us with a sullen barmaid before a dazzle of lights and optical illusions. Wall reiterated her pose and expression, and also followed Manet’s spatial depths, reflecting mirrors, multiple perspectives and proto-feminist dissection of the male gaze. But in the middle of his photograph, he also stuck a camera, urging the question that would preoccupy him, as it had Manet, throughout his career: how do you make modern art in a culture whose traditions are exhausted?

Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881 – 82. Image: artandarchitecture.org.uk

One answer was to display the colour transparency in a lightbox, at once infusing it with the luminosity of the cinema screen, mimicking advertisements, and turning the image into a minimalist object, like a Judd stack or Flavin fluorescent tube.

Ever since, Wall’s signature work, made very slowly, has been such large-scale colour transparencies in wall-mounted lightboxes, supplemented more recently by monumental monochrome gelatin-silver prints.

As superb, fresh shows running concurrently at London’s White Cube and Berlin’s Deutsche Guggenheim demonstrate, these remain the terrain for Wall’s battle between a tone as detached and neutral as Warhol’s and painstaking, deliberate compositions echoing the grandeur of his- tory painting.

Both shows feature a quartet of black-and-white works, each more than 3m wide, from 2006 and 2007, which Wall describes as “near-documentary” for their controlled re-stagings of decisive moments in stark, suburban life. “Tenants”, composed like a series of Cézanne cubes, depicts the struggling residents of a clapboard social housing project at the point when one of them returns from a day’s work. “War Game” is set on an anonymous stretch of wasteland where a gang of kids with toy guns ritually enact adult violence on a summer afternoon. Wall has situated them as isolated figures, panting across scrubland with menace and aggression. This is a heart-of-darkness picture: at its centre a boy on top of a pile of tyres, guards a makeshift cage of scrap fencing that encloses three human bodies – mock-corpses, yet carrying a charge of real-life horror.

Stillness, artifice, vivid detail, photo-realist immediacy: Wall disturbs by combining them all. “Men Waiting” brings a Waiting for Godot absurdity and austere Stieglitz elegance to a quotidian narrative of casual workers outside a plant, hoping to be selected for temporary jobs – a scene that Wall happened to see and then recreated nearby, placing his characters in the shadow of a looming evergreen.

Jeff Wall, Men Waiting 2006. Image: Idesign.com

The suggestion of nature’s and history’s indifference to individual fate is echoed in the quartet’s only unpeopled piece, “Cold Storage”: a close-up of three temple-like columns in a desolate industrial cold storage space lined with ice, which falls in small chunks to the ground. White Cube’s catalogue juxtaposes this with an upside-down reproduction of Poussin’s “The Triumph of David”, with its trio of resplendent columns, to emphasise Wall’s neo-classical structure. His columns are mere concrete slabs protecting foodstuff from decay; or are they also the foundations of western culture, bleak, deserted, but still standing?

“The Western Picture,” says Wall, “is of course a tableau, that independently beautiful depiction and composition that derives from the institutionalisation of perspective and dramatic figuration at the origins of modern western art, with Raphael, Dürer, Bellini and the other familiar maestri. It is known as a product of divine gift, high skill, deep emotion and crafty planning.”

He trained as a painter, and his own colour tableaux are attempts to bring to photography the vibrancy and compositional rigour of great pre-20th-century painting, as well as its serious purpose as a commentary on modern life.

Berlin has well-known examples from the early 2000s focusing, like the monochromes, on the idea of exposure – the urban drama of vertical lines, cubes and circles in “Concrete Ball”, the vista of travellers receding along a never-ending walkway beneath a stormy Constable sky in “Overpass”.

Jeff Wall, Overpass 2001. Image: tate.org.uk

At White Cube, however, two of the large colour transparencies from 2007, on show for the first time, seem to me a breakthrough: to a radiant, fluid, almost painterly late style – Wall is 61 – with a new lushness overflowing his chiselled perfections.

“Church, Carolina St, Vancouver” shows a Slavic Pentecostal church on a modest snow-covered street; in a cottage next door, a red glow from a window casts the only glimmer of warmth. This simple image is made transcendent by the flood of light that plays on Wall’s white-grey tonal gradations, as snow turns to slush and sharpens the grid of black horizontals and verticals – telegraph wires, lampposts. These form an abstract pattern, but also suggest the Christian cross, black against the white backcloth, evocative of Malevich.

“Dressing Poultry”, exhibited alongside, is an exuberant portrait of four workers in a rural building, slaughtering chickens. The focal point is the laughing face of an elderly woman as she tugs at a fowl’s entrails – an image straight out of Dutch 17th-century genre, as is the exquisitely contrived disorder of straw, bicycles, drills, piled up around the labourers. Pulsating with activity, “Dressing Poultry” is the secular pendant to the silent, pared down “Church”. They share sensuousness, graceful contrasts, the surprise of beauty in the mundane, and implications of sacrifice versus joy that root them in the Christian-Renaissance aesthetic. But they are also as accessible for newcomers as for aficionados of Wall’s cerebral, enriching oeuvre.

Jeff Wall’,
White Cube, London SW1, to January 19;
tel: +44 (0)20-7930-5373

‘Jeff Wall: Exposure’,
Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin,
to January 20; tel: +49 (0)30-2020-930

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s chief art critic.

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