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Jeff Wall: The Visible Man

The famed Canadian photographer fine-tunes his biggest exhibition yet

Jeff Wall is sitting quietly, his chin propped up by his thumb, his gaze drifting impassively over the thick-felted purple chairs that rise up and away in front of him. In them, a host of European art journalists—nearly 100, all told—stare back, all of them here, at the Schaulager in Basel, for him and him alone. Photographers with telescopic lenses occasionally punctuate the proceedings with their flashes—Wall is being introduced, at length and in German, by the Schaulager’s director and the show’s curator, Theodora Vischer—capturing his mild wince for the pages of their magazines and newspapers.

The occasion is an exhibition of Wall’s work. Any such event would be newsworthy here, in Europe, where Wall’s first major successes were achieved, and where he has a near rock-star status. But this, at the Schaulager, an impossibly moneyed, luxe and brand-new art institution built by the architectural superstars Herzog & de Meuron, is something different.

It’s called “Jeff Wall: Photographs 1978–2004,” and it is the most extensive showing of Wall’s work ever mounted. Seventy-two pictures are here, on two expansive floors of the Schaulager’s perfectly-lit space. Even Tate Modern in London, where the show will travel in October, won’t be able to match the Schaulager’s staging.

Just two years old, the Schaulager was in the market for a marquee event that would put it on the art-world map for more than architectural brilliance. It found a receptive star in Wall, who collaborated on not just the exhibition, but his first catalogue raisonné, which encompasses every picture he has made.

As Vischer speaks, Wall, looking professorial, waits patiently. Behind him, floor-to-ceiling windows reveal an expanse of the scrubby brush that surrounds the building, a muddy brown, concrete cube tucked in an industrial corner of Basel. In the background, low-slung warehouses rise out of a drizzly mist that has hung over the city for days. Just beyond a chain-link fence, a cargo train drifts by, stops and rolls absently back in the other direction.

It is the perfect backdrop. Wall’s enduring fascination with the urban typologies and social structures begat by the post-industrial era has been well documented over the years. Volumes of critical writing surround him, analyzing the assumed intent of his work in minute detail, from his apparent preoccupation with the human consumption of nature to his alleged enthrallment with the multicultural, post-colonial tensions of modern-day cosmopolitan reality.

Wall looks a little weary now, seated at the table, his expression harbouring a casual dread. The ongoing avalanche of scrutiny and theorizing has come to drag at his work like an anchor. The Schaulager represents not only his opportunity to stage the show of his life, but also, perhaps, a chance to drip some poison in the collective ear of a predictably over-prepared corps of art critics, eager to receive affirmation of the volumes of critical thought that they’ve consumed in preparation for this day. The hope is that the poison will take. He begins with self-effacing praise and gratitude toward the Schaulager. And then he begins, slowly and clearly laying a foundation for the conversation he wants to have now—and, by association, indicating the ones with which he’s done.

Wall describes his work—all of it—as contingent—accidents, he says, which he cannot control, and doesn’t want to. It would seem a strange statement from an artist who, for nearly 25 years, has built an international career on the strength of mannered photographs that he has constructed using performers, works that are divorced entirely from the photographic discourse of capturing the real.

The separation is a false one, Wall says—it is not a defiance of traditional photography, but a contemplation. Many of his pictures are straight, documentary. Those that aren’t—the ones that earned him his reputation—he calls “near-documentary,” pictures conjured from a remembered scene that Wall reconstructs later, as a painter might: removed from the event, but marked, somehow, by having seen it.

Wall’s only defiance now is of definition and absolutes, blowing the lid off the tidy boxes in which his work has been placed over the years. At times, his work has been described as prescriptive and stiff, even pedantic. “One crucial political consequence is that the viewer is given nothing to do….the world that is shown banishes all contingency,” once wrote the critic Norman Bryson. Wall is here to set the record straight, and open his oeuvre once and for all to the wash of latent meaning and possibility that his work contains.

Inevitably, though, it happens. A question arises, about Wall’s work being hung next to the large-scale history paintings with which he has been so intrinsically tied, work by Delacroix and Courbet, Velázquez and Goya. Wall’s expression is steady.

“I don’t think my work has any more relationship with the past than most other people’s work. It’s just been talked about that way more than some other people. And it’s my own fault, because 20 years ago, I talked about it that way myself,” Wall admits, his mouth curling in a wry smile. “And now, I’m trying to not emphasize that any more. There are other things to talk about.”

Wall’s deadpan grin downplays the reality. This is no small statement. Since 1978, when Wall debuted The Destroyed Room, his first large-scale photograph, printed on transparent cibachrome and glowing, hyperreal, on the light box that would become his hallmark, he has been bound tightly to the history of painting. The Destroyed Room, a chaotic scene of a woman’s ransacked bedroom, had an odd mannered sense to it, the gash in an overturned mattress running a perfect diagonal, the red of the crumbling wall a little too brilliant, too commanding, to be real. Wall, of course, had carefully assembled the scene, photographing his meticulously constructed carnage and putting it out in the world as a contemporary appropriation of Eugène Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus.

From that moment, his work was magnetized by an idea, at once brilliant in its simplicity and deeply penetrating, that the art world seized on immediately. Wall was, in the adopted words of Baudelaire, a painter of modern life, just as Édouard Manet had been before him. But for Wall, the relevant depiction of his modernity, the world in which he lived, would take place via similarly modern means—the photograph.

Fusing the notion with cinema, which was never so beholden to the documentary imperative, Wall had sudden licence. He imported the wonder of Western painting—”its sense of scale and its affection for nature,” which he has called painting’s greatest gifts—to a thoroughly contemporary practice and sited it not as a departure from the Western pictorial tradition, but as the next step in its never-ending continuum.

The problem, though, was that the idea was seized on so tightly that its grip never loosened.

“There’s a reason for that—it was a pretty darn good idea,” Wall says, smiling. He’s enjoying himself now, with the obligatory press call two days past. It’s the afternoon of the exhibition’s opening, and Wall has spent much of the day greeting a host of art-world dignitaries—museum heads, collectors. His long-time New York dealer, Marian Goodman, has made the trip to Switzerland for the occasion. Ever understated, and now dressed in faded black jeans and an untucked black shirt, Wall glows with a serene but obvious pride.

It’s as good a time as any to reflect on where he’s been—but not without a critical eye. Standing in the Schaulager’s first room, where The Destroyed Room hangs in all its luminescent glory, Wall gazes on his first work, circumspect.

“There was something polemical about the idea of taking photography and filtering it through the ideas of painting, and trying to bring the two together and deal with them on a new kind of scale—and in the ’70s, that was a new scale—and have that sense that a photograph can hang on the wall like that and do for you what only paintings had done before. That was important. But I was in a big hurry. I hadn’t worked in the studio, and I had not been able to know what to do for six or seven years. And I was impatient,” he says. “I really wanted to get started on something. And I kind of forced it. I think pictures like that force it.”

It’s a curious reading of arguably his best-known work, and one of the few that embody all the central preoccupations of a generation of critical writing about his oeuvre. Wall dangled similar carrots in other early staged works, offering Picture for Women (1979) as a reprise of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, and Stereo (1980), a picture of a naked young man with headphones in repose on his couch, a reference to Manet’s reclining prostitute in Olympia.

Such readings begat further readings, but ones that Wall has, over time, if not disowned, certainly quietly elided. Meandering through the early-1980s section at the Schaulager—the show is arranged in chronological order—Wall turns instead to his early cityscape photographs.

In the next gallery, the kinds of images that would make Wall famous, and root him as one of the primary players in the reinvention of photography as an artistic medium, lie in wait: Milk (1984) and Trân Dúc Ván (1988/2003), mannered and static, the central figures—performers, of course—thrust into the foreground, where their expressions and gestures, as in history painting, demand your attention.

But here, the quiet, simple images speak of a parallel practice, and one that has gained nowhere near as much attention: pictures of border zones, like Steves Farm, Steveston (1980), where an agrarian landscape shoulders up against an expanding row of cookie-cutter suburban houses, or The Bridge (1980), in which a cluster of post-war bungalows lies in perfect balance with an expanse of blue sky.

It is, perhaps, the curse of his own success. In the flood of critical opinion that began in the 1980s, Wall was often characterized as political—Marxist for his consistent portrayal of consumerism and society’s downtrodden, feminist for subbing in an apparently objectified male in the role of Olympia, or for naming his remake of Manet Picture for Women, with the artist himself yielding his omniscient eye and appearing alongside the female protagonist.

It was language he used himself, at one point. “It’s partly my fault,” he says. “But it’s also some other people’s fault, too.”

He was lumped in with the New Photography, which allied him with artists like Cindy Sherman and Andreas Gursky for his practice of staged realities, and set him against others, like Lee Friedlander and Stephen Shore, who remained, the story goes, in the camp of documentary, because they photographed “the real.”

It was a debate Wall wearied of quickly. “In the 1980s and 90s, people got the idea that these were two different domains. But it doesn’t work like that,” he said. “I was never doing fiction. I was doing cinematography. Cinematography’s not necessarily fiction. It’s just working with people to create something that may in fact be not at all fictional. Those categories don’t hold up at all. So I just thought, ‘Well, I’m going to do this picture because I like doing it, and there’s a purpose, I like the results, and I’m going to do the other kind of pictures, and we’ll see what happens.’ I’m still doing that, basically.”

His meanings are non-explicit, he says, to the point that even he is often unsure of just what they are. He keeps it loose, his premium now, perhaps more than ever, on not knowing.

“I don’t claim to understand my work that terribly well,” he says. “At one point, I sort of felt confident enough that I had a grasp of what picture-making was. That was 15, 20 years ago. And now I feel that I don’t. And I don’t want to.”

His fascination with the commonplace, the everyday, has never waned, as his most recent images, such pieces as A view from an apartment (2004–5), depicting a modest dwelling where two young women, padding in socks on an aimless afternoon, overlook an industrial waterfront, will show.

But meaning, he says, was never the goal so much as was a feeling, something elemental, ambiguous and personal, and beyond definition. He pauses at The Pine on the Corner (1990), in which a freakishly tall, haggard pine tree towers over a squat stucco house. The snowy peaks of the coastal mountains loom in the distance. The sky, glowing crystal-blue, seems infinite, and occupies fully two-thirds of the frame, but for the tree reaching to its top border. Electricity lines cleave the frame where the sky begins, trapping a dreary streetscape that lies below. The standard interpretation tells us that the work is a fetishization of a natural world long since lost, and a lament for the mundanity of contemporary urban existence. But that’s not important.

“I think you first like looking at it. If you don’t like looking at it, it’s not going to awaken anything in you,” he says. “That’s why you can learn so much from people like Cézanne and Walker Evans, who were so interested in the picture, the making and the being of the picture. Never mind the subject—the subject is carried by the picture. And without the pictureness of the picture, the subject’s dead. It’s just information.”

It’s a curious statement from an artist whose work, at least the portion that has used characters and mise en scène, has seemed freighted with exactly that. Open-ended narratives nearly tumble out of the frame in, for example, 1994’s Insomnia, where a harried man lies wide-eyed under his kitchen table, or An Eviction (1988/2004), in which a handful of tiny figures dot a vast frame, captivated by the sight of one of their neighbours being hauled away by the sheriff.

But meandering into the social-commentary and narrative possibilities in Wall’s pictures has always been a labyrinthine proposition, and has preoccupied both his champions and his detractors for his whole career, yielding endless readings and just as many conflicts, often within the same picture.

But that is also part of the pictures’ success. The appetite for narrative they whet is undeniable, something that is surely not lost on Wall. But the story is not the priority here, even in such works as An Eviction, which seems to contain a shopping list of Wall’s preoccupations: a drab suburban development, the uneasy racial mix of the post-colonial world, an economic dilemma—eviction—brought on, perhaps, by both. “Could be,” Wall smiles. “Maybe he’s a noise-making nuisance in the neighbourhood, and his landlord booted him out. That’s also possible. But I don’t really care about that. I care about making a good picture.”

Wall has never wavered from that concern, but it has seemed very much in the foreground in recent years, as he has increasingly turned away from the pictures that made his reputation—the static figures perched at frame’s edge, engaging the viewer in close proximity—to quieter images, many bereft of both figures and any hint of narrative.

“I photographed a lot of events, and even made them happen, so I have a relationship to event,” Wall says. “But slowly, I started thinking more about the absence of event. And I became more interested in that.” Pictures of this nature have appeared with increasing frequency over the last five years, pictures like Cuttings (2001), Concrete ball (2002) and Pipe opening (2002), which is, literally, a rough hole in a wooden wall where a pipe might fit through. They are quiet pictures, and almost purely formal; the eye’s only concerns are texture and colour, composition and scale.

At the same time, though, Wall’s recent output reveals a restlessness and a peripatetic sense of priority. Cuttings, in which three neatly tied bundles of sticks lean against a wooden garage wall, was made alongside such an elaborate work as After ‘Spring Snow,’ by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34, a complex mise en scène that Wall hopes to finish in 2005, five years after it began.

And then there is The Flooded Grave (1998–2000), an incredibly intricate picture Wall made of a freshly dug grave in a cemetery. Inside the waterlogged grave is a tidal pool teeming with life. Wall created the pool in his studio and dropped it into the image digitally. “I like the composition of this picture. It has a rotation to it, a torque, I’m pretty happy with,” he says. The suggestion of Freud’s “deep oceanic feeling,” a feeling of death, seems more than implied. “If you like. Go ahead,” he smiles, and walks away.

And all the while, Wall has continued his black-and-white practice, producing works like Burrow (2004), begun in the mid-’90s and printed at his customary large scale, but bereft of the familiar light box. Wall’s recent history makes him something of a moving target, hard to pin down and even harder to fit into the tidy boxes the critics identified for him long ago.

In just a few hours, about two thousand people—art dealers, students, architects and a host of everyday people, some pushing strollers, some old, some young, and no small number of small children—will throng the gallery, partaking of free beer and wine—a public opening in the most literal sense. Wall gives the impression that that’s as far ahead as he’s looked—or intends to.

“I don’t have plans. I don’t make plans. There are a few other subjects I’m working on now. Something will pop up—I hope,” he smiles. “I’m not going forward. I’m not going anywhere. I’m just going to the next picture.”

This is a feature from the Fall 2005 issue of Canadian Art.

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