Jeff Wall’s Unlovely World
Marian Goodman until March 22
24 West 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-977-7160
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, March 6, 2008 under the heading “Jeff Wall’s Unlovely World”
Twenty or so men hang around looking at once bored and apprehensive, staring every which way, and disinclined to communicate with one another. A weary woman trundles home in a pitifully downtrodden housing unit populated by despondent men sitting around aimlessly and staring into space. Scruffy kids playing war games eye one another menacingly, or play dead with an unsuppressed grimace on their face. A dark, grimy cold storage room is so inhospitable that anyone who had been there has fled.
If the visitor to Jeff Wall’s latest exhibition feels inclined to construct a suitably grim narrative to unite the forlorn characters within his moody photographic scenarios, that narrative might indeed be that such characters have all been to see a Jeff Wall exhibition. The work, typically of this Canadian artist, manages to be at once enigmatic and enervating, cruel and farcical, monumental and banal. For all that Wall-world is mean, ugly, and cold, however, this unlovely work somehow demands attention.
Mr. Wall is best known for color images presented as transparencies in light boxes, of which there are two in the present show: “Church, Carolina Street, Vancouver, Winter” (2006), depicting a a Slavic Pentecostal church on a snowy street corner; and “Dressing Poultry” (2007) depicting a group of food industry workers in a barn engaged in this unappetizing activity.
But the show at Marian Goodman is dominated by images that depart from this format in that they are black-and-white, gelatin-silver prints. All the works in the show, including the light boxes, belong, furthermore, to what the artist himself identifies as a less familiar genre within his oeuvre: his “near-documentary” images, which stand in contrast to his more familiar “cinematographic” works. These are images that operate like film stills, and are shot like a movie in terms of staffage and staging. Some of Mr. Wall’s now near iconic constructed images employ elements of fantasy, and frequently take their theme and composition from Old Master paintings, transcribed to a contemporary vernacular setting.
Ironically, while the “cinematographic” images derive from painting, Mr. Wall’s “near-documentary” images take their cue more directly from movies, recalling, in particular, Italian and French postwar neo-realist cinema. His earlier “near-documentary” “Cyclist” (1996), (not in this show) recalls Vittorio De Sica’s classic, “The Bicycle Thief” (1948). But while Mr. Wall has, through writings and interviews, attempted to educate viewers about his distinct genres, the artist is also happy that elements from each should overlap.
One characteristic that remains constant, however, is the humungous size of Mr. Wall’s photography, whether light box or print, color or black-and-white. One might associate documentary photography with manageable scale, expecting to encounter it in printed publications; the large scale of these images, which run up to 9 by 13 feet, has connotations of either murals or heroically scaled paintings of the 19th Century salon. Mr. Wall’s sense of the documentary, however, still requires size. His photography aspires to realism (whether of painting, the novel, or the screen) in terms of heightened drama and copious detail, both of which bigness abets.
It is timely, in view of his neo-realism, that Mr. Wall’s show coincides with the Courbet retrospective at the Met. Mr. Wall’s new photographs at Marian Goodman were first seen last year at the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, which commissioned them. The most striking image among them, “Men Waiting” (2006) brings two well-known pictures by Courbet to mind, although it is not a transcription of either of them: “A Burial at Ornans” (1849–50) with its pack of (mostly) men under a gray sky, and the destroyed “Stonebreakers” of the same date, which, like Mr. Wall’s image, expresses solidarity with workers by reconstructing a contemporary scene of labor observed by the artist and reconstructed using the actual encountered laborers as models. In Mr. Wall’s case, these men hanging around in the morning in the hope of a day’s casual labor, were contracted by the artist for his shoot and moved to another location. The image is dominated by a leafless winter tree and an overcast sky.
“Tenants” (2007) and “War Game” (2007) similarly have “real” people as their protagonists, in contrast with the professional actors Mr. Wall often contracts for his “cinematographic” pictures. Both images entail credible “slice of life” scenarios: kids playing war with water pistols and an improvised prison on a vacant lot; unemployed, or overworked, people hanging around or returning to their miserable dwelling. In keeping with Mr. Wall’s aesthetic, however, the scenes, are carefully orchestrated, although in some ways they aspire to the condition of the snapshot.
Does it really serve these pictures to be so big? It might be thought a habit on Mr. Wall’s part to produce at this scale. Initially doing so was a statement of aspiration; he wanted to be treated as an artist, not a photographer; cinema and painting, not other photography, were his touchstones. Making images closer to life-size forced the viewer to confront a literal presence, thus heightening a sense of the real. And the scale allowed for massive detail with a sharpened focus covering a lot of ground. But in these black-and-white images, meticulousness is no longer the order of the day. Objects in the middle distance of these long-shot images, like the exhaust ducts on the retail buildings in “Men Waiting,” are much fuzzier than we are used to from Mr. Wall’s light boxes.
The effect of scale, however, is to demand an attention the unglamorous, prosaic images might not otherwise command, to make moral, political claims for the importance of their subjects — in the senses both of the socially marginalized people and the issues raised. With Mr. Wall, the artist’s formidable reputation, and knowledge of the time and labor the images and propaganda about them work hard to ensure you know are entailed, also tug on the viewer’s conscience to attend them closely. Frankly, they would be less likely to get such time and consideration if they were small and plentiful, as would befit snapshots rather than productions, actual rather than near-documentaries. He creates conditions that demand close attention for his work, but the result makes his whole enterprise seem, well, near-pretentious.