The Museum of Modern Art
February 25 – May 14, 2007
Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
February 23 – March 31, 2007
By STEPHANIE BUHMANN
Jeff Wall is considered one of the most innovative and influential artists of his generation. Though his medium is photography it is perhaps inappropriate to think of him as a photographer. He is a conceptual artist, whose career began during the 1960s and he has searched for new images of our collective existence ever since – ones that reference the traditions of the past while simultaneously feeling contemporary. Over the years, Wall has repeatedly described his work as painting modern life. Aiming high, he prefers to comment on contemporary culture at large. In the course of three decades, he has created a body of work that pays homage to art theory, painting, film and literature. He has established an oeuvre that is rich in savvy footnotes.
When viewing a large group of Wall’s works at his current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, it becomes clear that his pictorial ambitions are inseparable from the distinct way the work is displayed. To Wall, who has largely worked with color transparencies that are mounted onto light boxes, production is a key value. By choosing a language that is as specific and high profile as this, Wall subjects himself to immediate suspicion. The questions that arise are: What kind of effect do Wall’s materials have on our judgment of the actual images? Are both contingents beneficial to each other, or problematic? Do we trust that Wall’s imagery could hold its own without the use of light boxes? To begin approaching Wall’s eclectic oeuvre, it is necessary to understand the ambitions it entails.
Wall’s early passions were painting and art history. His doctoral studies focused on John Heartfield’s photocollages. In Vancouver, where the artist currently lives and works, he had engaged in a vivid verbal and written dialogue with local Conceptual artists, including his former teacher Ian Wallace, and begun to explore Conceptual photography. It was not until his move to London, where Wall befriended Dan Graham amongst others, that he began to experiment with film. In interviews, he still names radical Realists, such as Bergman, Buñuel and Fassbinder, as important sources of inspiration. Though the idea of cinematic storylines and the creation of distinct moods appealed to Wall – he rightly thought of film as the language of the future – the moving image did not prove to be the right fit. Instead, he re-focused on the still image, while borrowing heavily from cinematic mise–en–scène. According to Wall, it was almost by chance that he discovered photography contained the formal vocabulary he would use to channel his diverse interests. He made his first backlit color transparency in 1977 after riding a bus outside of Barcelona and passing an illuminated sign that had a lasting effect on him. By employing a technique that at the time was primarily associated with commercial advertising campaigns, Wall instantly entered contemporary terrain. He had found a format that had been mostly unexplored in the context of art and contained formal elements that could attract a consumer’s short attention span.
At MoMA, almost forty works from the 1970s onward demonstrate that the production of Wall’s images, which often involves multiple and specially designed sets, is as complex as the presentation of the work itself. Framed in metal and illuminated by hidden fluorescent tubes, Wall’s light boxes fascinate us like flickering TV screens do. They capitalize on the phenomenon that a strong light source will always mesmerize the human eye. Because of this physical effect, Wall’s works cannot shake a certain epic quality. There is a general sense of grandeur that rests on the surface, but our aesthetic expectations are not always met. At times brilliant, at times a bit too sensationalist and overwrought, Wall’s compositions are by no means equally successful.
This exhibition presents three general directions within Wall’s oeuvre: there are complex figurative compositions, still lifes, and a few black and white gelatin silver prints. In the context of this retrospective the latter remain a curiosity and seem rather out of place. In the catalogue essay MoMA curator Peter Galassi adds a quote in which Wall explains that the black and white works simply embody his attempt to stay involved with all facets of the medium. In the first category, After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (1999-2000 printed 2001), which was exhibited at Kassel’s Documenta XI in 2002, is one of Wall’s most literal and satisfying compositions. Here, the viewer is allowed access to the space, where the “Invisible Man” presides. According to Ellison’s narrative, he has been in this forgotten basement since accidentally falling into it during a New York street riot. Wall depicts the scene by sticking close to the text. He draws our attention to the novel’s protagonist, placing him at the far end of the cellar room with his back turned towards us, as well as to the 1,369 illegally connected light bulbs that illuminate the subterranean hide out. While the person of interest remains mysteriously anonymous, the crisply rendered light bulbs take center stage. The light bulbs shed light on this hidden scene and are themselves illuminated by the hidden fluorescent tubes. The light bulbs and perhaps the light box become metaphors for the “Invisible Man’s” search for his essential self. Each light bulb can be viewed as a symbolic step towards self-realization.
Another tribute entitled A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (1993) transplants the scenery from Hokusai’s woodcut series The 36 Views of Mt. Fuji into the setting of British Columbia. Mt. Fiji is missing, but the figures’ poses and the movement of a stack of papers in the wind make it easy to recognize the famous work Sunshu Ejiri. Though a frozen image, this scene is far from static. This is not one frame in a sequence, but instead, it is a collage of movements and gestures. It is more than a photograph, less than a film, and astonishingly close to historical painting. It is a good example of Wall’s elaborate figurative works, which are hard to categorize, and it is this quality that makes them appear interestingly foreign. These works are not snapshots from life or renditions of organic processes. Instead, they are staged events, in which performers reenact lifelike situations with an exaggerated expressiveness. As one can see in Milk (1984), which features a milk carton bursting in a man’s hand, it is the intensity of specific details that aids in establishing an overall Surrealist quality in the work. In Milk the man’s crouching position suggests that he, if not homeless, is in bad economic shape. The exploding milk, a liquid associated with innocence, the beginning of life, and nurturing, manages to sum up the adult’s aggression and devastation with satirical emphasis. In this case, the idea and visual expression form a strong union.
It is important to note that despite being a perfectionist Wall is nevertheless bound to the restrictions of his materials. Because the printable size of color transparencies is limited, the works that exceed fifty inches in both dimensions must incorporate a visible seam. There is an explicit split within the composition itself so that even when viewers are distracted by the overall image, we are reminded of Cibachrome’s limitations. Wall has consciously embraced the crease by making it part of the composition and at other times he has chosen to ignore it. However it is this split that best describes the mutual dependence of Wall’s photographic image and the work’s production.
Some of Wall’s most fascinating works are his Diagonal Compositions. They are simple in their exploration of color and form, tracing geometric shapes in the small corners of our everyday surroundings. Here, the focus is solely on the objects that are shown, to the exclusion of the long catalogue of cultural references that one finds in the figurative works. In Diagonal Composition (1993) and Diagonal Composition no. 3 (2000), an old sink with a diminutive soap bar and a water bucket and cleaning mop are transformed into contemporary still lifes. They are devoid of overt social commentaries (as seen in Mimic (1982) or The Storyteller(1986)), and lack the sense of historic grandeur that one finds in Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986) (1992), a work as somber as Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa” (1819). If Wall’s figurative works are reminiscent of history paintings that focus on the large gesture, his Diagonal Compositions are odes to smaller truths. In these simple compositions the use of a light box adds an enchantingly strange touch. It emphasizes the subject’s ordinariness by documenting and spotlighting it.
Concurrent with MoMA’s retrospective, Marian Goodman Gallery exhibited a selection of newer works, in which a few smaller pieces translate as simplified extensions of Wall’s Diagonal Compositions. Blind Window 3 (2006) and Basin in Rome 1 (2005). These pictures continue to find tranquility in the commonplace. A green cellar window frame covered with spider webs or a Roman stone basin, in which a red plastic bottle cap ring dramatically floats on the water’s surface, become case studies on how to look for storylines in everyday trivia. Though not as elaborate as the 1990 still lifes An Octopus and Some Beans, which were taken in Wall’s Vancouver studio, they are elegant harmonies of color and line. These images are not reminiscent of movie sets that entail complex narratives. Instead, they read as emptied out canvases, which convince through rhythmic serenity. But would they have the same effect on us if lacking the light box? From a photographic point of view, each image should be convincing on its own, be it lit up, black and white, or color. From a conceptual viewpoint, it doesn’t matter, as they are inseparable. In Wall, it’s hard to tell, because the photographic image and its high profile presentation have become united in their plea for the here and now. On Wall’s ambitious journey, structural as well as pictorial opposites are radically fused to paint a contemporary portrait with remnants of the past.