Marian Goodman Gallery
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
September 20 – November 2, 2002
The remnant of an old suitcase lies open, littered with garbage and filled with rain. Three strangers walk along an overpass on a partially cloudy day, carrying luggage. Smoke from a small fire rises through a forest’s bare trees in winter. These are the mundane scenes that Jeff Wall elevates in his signature style in lightboxes the size of movie screens, lit up like billboards.
Wall has been quoted as saying that it’s no longer possible for modern artists to paint like the great masters. In a way, his photographs put us in mind of the nineteenth-century European realists whose grand scale anticipated cinema. Wall’s lightboxes impact viewers saturated with the movies and advertising, but what they get us to look at is the overlooked. Dawn is an 8 by 10 foot vision of an industrial back street. It’s not about ugly subjects so much as overlooked ones – a dumpster, a rock, telephone poles, electrical wires, shrubbery and a wire fence. The generic landscape could be New Jersey, it could be Toronto (the artist is Canadian), but either way you’d never look twice. Wall focuses on the invisible landscape of everyday objects.
The centerpiece of the show is also about invisibility but the subject is anything but mundane. Wall borrows from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the 1952 novel about a black man’s experiences and reflections on his blackness, for this elaborately staged scene. After the Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Preface (2001) premiered at Documenta 11 this past summer. It illustrates the scene from Ellison’s novel in which the book’s hero has filled his basement retreat in Harlem with light – the light of 1,369 light bulbs, according to Wall. Bare light bulbs, some of them lit and some of them not, cover the ceiling in giant clusters, creeping down the walls like overgrown foliage. In the cluttered room the protagonist sits, dressed in an undershirt and suspenders, with his back to us, while we gawk. It is a spectacle indeed, a massive, dazzling work with all the big-impact feeling of a blockbuster movie.