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Jeff Wall: A Pilgrim’s Notebook

Opening spread for "A Pilgrim's Notebook" by Sarah Milroy, Canadian Art, Summer 2012, pp 94–101

Spain’s Santiago de Compostela is the end of the road, the terminus of the historic, 780-kilometre-long El Camino de Santiago, a system of footpaths and byways that for more than a thousand years has led foot-weary, faithful souls south and west over the Pyrenees from France and Central Europe to visit the bones of St. James, which, tradition has it, are interred beneath the cathedral there. It is thus a place of pilgrimage, and the journey is an act of contemplation and devotion.

Art lovers, too, have their devotions to perform, touring the world from art fair to biennial to exhibition and back again in search of aesthetic experience, understanding, and—sometimes—epiphany.

For 30 years, the Vancouver artist Jeff Wall has been a key player in these international peregrinations, his elaborately staged, large-scale photographic tableaux—often backlit and presented in the massive scale of history painting—redefining the aims of photography for his generation. Rising magisterially above the fray of go-go marketeering, he has gone quietly, sometimes inscrutably, about his business, sifting through the archive of art history and his own lived experience to show us where we are.

When I discovered that the exhibition “Jeff Wall: The Crooked Path” was to be staged in Santiago de Compostela, it seemed too good to be true. The show’s subtitle came from a work by Wall—which depicts a scruffy little mud track traversing a fringe of urban wilderness in Vancouver—but it suggested a kind of quest. I would make my own pilgrimage: Toronto to Paris, Paris to Vigo, and up the coast and inland by car to pay my respects.

There was another reason to go: Wall, along with the Belgian curator Joël Benzakin, had curated this show, selecting a range of his own works for display alongside those by some 60 historical and contemporary artists with whom, by his own admission, he keeps imaginative counsel. The range was enormous: Dan Graham, Carl Andre, Lawrence Weiner, Marcel Duchamp, Dan Flavin, Helen Levitt, Walker Evans, Stephen Shore and the German photographers August Sander, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky, as well as a raft of Canadians, from Rodney Graham and Ian Wallace to Stephen Waddell, Roy Arden and Mark Lewis. The catalogue, expertly edited by Hans De Wolf, told me that the galleries would be organized around themes—”Scale and Minimalism,” “Cinematography,” “Photography and Conceptualism,” “Contemporaries” and so on. This would be the decoder ring for the oeuvre as a whole.

Anticipating all this, I climbed the hill toward the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea (CGAC), a sleekly planar modern building designed two decades ago by the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza Vieira. Down in the street below, I had already received a kickstart to the imagination: a lone poster for the exhibition—the only trace of the show I found in the city—featuring Wall’s famous work The Thinker (1986). In it, a man is posed pensively on a stack of cinder blocks and a stump of wood, while below him the industrial Vancouver harbour stretches out toward the sea. In the middle distance, we see a rail line and grain silos. At first glance, this could be not Vancouver but Vigo, another west-facing industrial port with a similar climate and economy (albeit this one Atlantic). The seated man in Wall’s image could be an immigrant from the Mediterranean world, or Aboriginal. His occupation and social station are also unclear: he could be a labourer (work boots), or a poet (tousled hair, rumpled jacket, expressive hands). A contemporary drifter, he seems only provisionally rooted in place, subject perhaps to the economic forces inscribed in the urban landscape below. A sword is lodged in his back, yet he remains upright; the weapon seems more to fix him in space than to deal a mortal blow. Like so many of Wall’s pictures, the work is a finely crafted puzzle, and unpacking the image involves thinking about the world, and how we live together in it.

As I had anticipated, the exhibition offered a rich, dense field for interpretive ploughing—one took it slowly—but it was also poetic, with works of art rubbing up against one another in unexpected, catalytic combinations.

The first room, for example, was devoted to the theme of the studio. It revisited Wall’s artistic beginnings in Vancouver in the 1970s, and established the conceptual ingredients of his breakthrough 1978 piece, The Destroyed Room. That large, backlit work depicts a stage-set bedroom in wild disarray—a tempest of vintage clothing, strewn bedclothes, a ripped mattress and assorted shoes and costume jewellery. It was a puzzling artifice at the time of its making, and it has remained so ever since. But Wall’s context-setting installation at CGAC offered multiple pathways in.

Directly beside it, Wall positioned a clip from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, its garish colour scheme, claustrophobic atmosphere and seedy glamour obvious inspirations for Wall’s work. Then, in a vitrine nearby, he displayed an old Art Gallery of Greater Victoria catalogue (from one of his earliest shows) in which he laid bare other artistic antecedents—Eugène Delacroix’s congested and chaotic Death of Sardanapalus (1827) and Duchamp’s Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage… (1946–66), a work on permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Like The Destroyed Room, Duchamp’s sexually charged tableau is infused with female erotic energy, though the enclosed, artificial stage set is viewable only through a peephole. In a nearby vitrine, Wall presented a copy of Duchamp’s working studies for this mise en scène, expressing his fellow feeling for the French father of conceptual art. Duchamp delivers riddles rather than answers in his complex, hermetic art. His work can be comic, in a sly sort of way. Wall has inherited that inclination.

Another catalogue in this gallery was laid open to a page featuring the sources for the other well-known early work here: Wall’s Picture for Women (1979), a reprise and rethinking of Édouard Manet’s famous 1882 A Bar at the Folies-Bergères (with allusions to 1960s fashion photography and Diego Velázquez’s 1656 Las Meninas). Two early black-and-white Ian Wallace photo works from 1977—one quoting Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600), with local Vancouver artists cast as apostles—occupied another wall, a nod to Wall’s early teacher, who clearly shared the younger artist’s sense of the ever-presence of art history.

Further works in the gallery spoke of Wall’s rootedness in Vancouver community, and his ties to Californian conceptual art, while also suggesting the studio as a space of rigorous self-encounter. The presentation of some of Rodney Graham’s most hermetic works (including Reading Machine for Lenz, from 1993) developed the theme of closed circuitry. These were installed near documentation of self-punitive studio performances by the Los Angeles artist Chris Burden from the early 1970s, and Bruce Nauman’s 1967–68 video documentation of his own solitary performance in the studio. In front of the camera, Nauman walks the outline of a square drawn on the floor—the set reminds one of a boxing ring—but he does so with a deliberately mincing, contrapposto gait, the hip-swinging affectation that Renaissance sculptors favoured for their nudes. Here, effeminacy and sensitivity are set against the notion of gruelling self-confrontation, with the ghosts of art history breathing audibly at the artist’s back.

In the second gallery, Wall tackled the issue of scale. This high-ceilinged space was dominated by his epic backlit Cibachrome work The Storyteller (1986), a view of vagrants hanging out on a muddy verge near a highway overpass. Over the years, this work has become famous for its quotation from Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863): Wall lifts several of his poses directly from that historic work. But, as this gallery made plain, other issues were at play. A propped-up white-neon tube sculpture by Dan Flavin in one corner suggested an inspiration for Wall’s adoption of the backlit format—quotidian hardware seconded to aesthetic expression. Wall also included a 1968 conceptual artwork by Lawrence Weiner, for which a precisely measured section of the gallery wall is cut away to reveal the studs and drywall beneath, implicating the architecture in the act of framing. On a facing wall, two early, grey-on-grey shaped-canvas pinstripe abstractions by Frank Stella seemed part–industrial cladding and part-art, again invoking the scale of manufacture. A large floor grid by Carl Andre—Roaring Forties (1988)—anchored the ensemble, setting up a dialogue with the Wall tableau, and suggesting that scale for Wall functions not only to evoke the monumentality of commercial signage or the movie screen, but also as a way of implicating our bodies in the experience. Wall’s arrangement provoked you to consider the questions “How does the contemporary artist step up to the scale of modern life?” and “How can one contend with its overwhelming visceral impact?” His large-format Cibachromes may have borrowed their scale from French 19th-century history painting, but they also challenge the urban scale of the overpass and the billboard.

From gallery to gallery, the insights bloomed. In a screening room, Wall presented selected clips from some of his favourite films, moments of uncanny resonance that stick in the mind. The variety was intriguing: a dream sequence from Luis Buñuel’s 1950 Los olvidados (an interlude of murderous Oedipal fancy); a scene from François Truffaut’s 1959 masterpiece The 400 Blows, in which a fugitive boy escapes capture; a fight among street thugs from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1961 Accattone; Liv Ullman and her double, Bibi Andersson, indolently bathing-suited and smoking on a patio, from Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 Persona. Watching the clips, one could sense their likeness to Wall’s art, in which narrative potency is compressed into the still image. Wall has spoken of his photographic works as “condensations,” parallel to the thematic compressions found in the art of Manet or Gustave Courbet. As Wall writes in the exhibition catalogue, “technically, all of the elaborations of cinema are really reducible to a large number of still photographs printed on a single—or a few—long strips of celluloid.” This, he says, “is really the open door into another way of appreciating photography and relating to it.” Still photography ups film’s ante.

Another gallery, devoted to conceptual photography, gathered seminal works by the American conceptual artists Dan Graham (Homes for America, 1966–67), Robert Smithson (Monuments of Passaic, 1967), Douglas Huebler and others, and provided an intellectual context for Wall’s urban and rural landscape works, in which space bears the inscription of industry and the economy. The section revealed, too, how Wall straddles photographic genres. “It’s become somewhat orthodox,” Wall writes, “to make [a] distinction between Conceptual artists using photography and others working more deeply within photography as it’s mostly been understood over time—a distinction between, say, Huebler and [Stephen] Shore.… But I was interested in both attitudes and still am, and don’t like having to take sides.”

One gallery illuminated Wall’s indebtedness to literature and included a selection of backlit works arising from the writings of André Breton, Franz Kafka, Ralph Ellison and others. In Wall’s After ‘Spring Snow’, by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34 (2000–05), an elegant Japanese woman swathed in pale chiffon is seen from behind, crouching forward slightly in a railway carriage, removing her shoe. Wall’s moody nocturne matches Mishima’s courtly and mysterious style. (Was it my imagination, or does the woman’s filmy dress evoke the translucent rice-paper sleeve of a first edition of the book, included in a cabinet nearby?) The effort seems not so much to record Mishima’s narrative but rather to recreate the sensation of reading, and the particular aroma in the mind—beyond plot, beyond character development—that an author can create.

In the gallery devoted to vintage photography, Wall’s deepest reverences were revealed. Four of the photographs were from the personal collection of Wall and his wife, Jeannette, including a 1956 image of a desolate rooftop view in Butte, Montana, by Robert Frank. One sensed a precursor for Wall’s The Crooked Path in Heinrich Zille’s photograph Illegal Waste Dump at Charlottenburg (1898), which documents a littered urban fringe where the ploughed field meets the city’s edge. Wols’s “Tramp”, Cassis (1940–41), also from Wall’s collection, is a striking image of a resting hobo, a difficult urban subject strangely aestheticized, and kindred to Wall’s many compositions featuring indigents. Is the subject sleeping or dead? Pictorially, Wall crafts tableaux that are impossible to interpret definitively. As with Wols’s picture, we are left to wrestle with our discomfort.

Here, one felt compelled to consider Wall’s curious relationship to the photographic tradition of the decisive moment. While he has clearly been inspired by photography’s ability to bear witness to spontaneous events, he himself has repurposed still photography as a medium of artifice, in order to present another kind of truth. “My pictures aren’t trying to be acts of reportage,” he writes in the catalogue, “but they are taking a contemplative relationship to the reportage quality that’s unique to photography. They are ‘near’ to it, hovering fairly close to it, and finding different ways to reflect upon it, without being it.” Such is the relationship between Diane Arbus’s seldom-seen photograph of an arguing man and woman at Coney Island—a study in explosive anger caught at the moment of detonation—and a work like Milk (1984), in which Wall has orchestrated just such a slice of volatility for the camera. (In Wall’s work, a man on the street crushes a milk carton, sending a plume of white liquid into the air while clenching his fist.) Likewise, Garry Winogrand’s photos of New York street life reflect an alertness to city life and its unscripted, close-quarter collisions—the same kind of frissons that fascinated Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas and Manet in 19th-century Paris. This urban phenomenon surfaces again in carefully staged works like Wall’s Mimic (1982), in which a Caucasian man, walking with his girlfriend, pulls at the corner of his eye with his finger—a racial slur aimed at an Asian pedestrian who shares the sidewalk. Wall’s city is a theatre for improvisation and spontaneous combustion.

Looking at Wall’s Overpass (2001), I could now see its complexity in a new way. At first, it had seemed straightforward: a group of travellers of varying races lean into the wind on a concrete overpass—the kind of bleak, low-budget minimalist architecture that crosses rail lands—each dragging or carrying luggage (roll-aboards, mini-duffels, even plastic shopping bags). But then I remembered the 1898 Heinrich Zille picture of itinerant workers pushing their cart in sand, which Wall had included in a gallery downstairs. Migration and a new kind of rootlessness had been Zille’s themes as well.

Overpass left me thinking, too, about Gustave Caillebotte’s late-19th-century pictures of Parisian bridges, and the velocity of those diagonal compositions. Caillebotte’s famous painting The Floor Scrapers (1875) has that same fierce diagonal pull, the labourers tethered to pictorial perspective with peculiar force. Like Wall’s inter-urban migrants, these workers had abandoned their pasts, drawn into the city to execute the dream of modernization envisioned by Baron Haussmann. Today, capitalism exerts an even more urgent—now global—gravitational pull.

Walking back to the hotel in the early evening, making my way through migrating flocks of tourists and students, I reflected on my day in the gallery. At moments, I had found the show hard to follow. The section on Wall’s contemporaries, for example, came apart at the seams here and there, with works by Kerry James Marshall, Kai Althoff and Patrick Faigenbaum failing to hang together. The works by Arden, Waddell and Lewis, however, seemed to bed down comfortably with Wall’s own, particularly Lewis’s mesmerizing video projection Willesden Laundrette: Reverse Dolly, Pan Right, Friday Prayers (2010). A cinematic homage to Wall (or so it seemed), it opens with an encounter with a solitary man in the window of a seedy public laundry, and then draws us outward into an East London street, taking in the city’s dense, multi-ethnic complexity.

A gallery devoted to Wall’s new work also left me adrift, though there were remarkable works in it, like his ribald Dressing poultry (2007), a backlit tableau depicting a zany mom-and-pop chicken-plucking facility in which plump, white female workers and poultry corpses seem oddly conflated. (Wall’s scenario here, both boisterous and macabre, is a pointed contrast to the massive industrialized factory-farming enterprises that increasingly colonize the landscape around Vancouver. I thought of Brueghel.) Also, I have long wondered how Wall decides which works to produce in the backlit colour format and which to print in black and white. I left this show none the wiser.

In the end, though, my view of Wall had changed. Previously, I had understood him as an artist positioning himself within the history of images. Now, I understood him more as a connoisseur of vision itself, of how we, as a species, extract meaning from it—his works are visual minefields punctuated with subtle cues carefully set to detonate in the mind. For me, he is now less a creature of the art world than of the world at large.  True, many of Wall’s compositions arise from the insider story of art. When I look at Hillside in Sicily (2008) and sense Robert Capa’s backward-reeling Spanish freedom fighter as a flitting phantom there, I may suspect Wall’s learned engineering of that association. Likewise, when I see Boy falls from tree (2010), a backlit image of everyday child’s play gone awry in a Vancouver back garden, I can appreciate how it holds multiple art historical worlds: Yves Klein’s leap from a wall; Helen Levitt’s gawky inner-city urchins; Michelangelo’s damned souls cast from heaven; the fall of Adam, the tree of knowledge, the floating seraphim of Blake’s euphoric imaginings. The archive comes to life, constantly reshuffling.

But Wall also affects us bodily, through the scale of his work and its appeal to our visceral reflexes (the boy’s perilous fall, the tense moment of racial insult before the thrown punch). His art alerts us to how we scan the world for signs of threat or difference, and how our delicate antennae pick up the slightest aberrations. Surveillance, for example, is the explicit theme of In front of a nightclub (2006). Here, beneath the watchful gaze of a camera wall-mounted at upper left, young people mill about the entrance to a club, cruising one another, doing deals and making calls, ready to have sex, ready to fight, ready to move on. Nothing is clear, but nothing ever is in the big city. There is so little that is solid underneath us. Anxiety thrums beneath these images.

Ultimately, this is what makes his works so contemporary. Looking at Wall’s photographs, we get a clearer sense of how our visual acuity is linked to our own senses of identity, belonging and safekeeping. Wall posits the eye as the master organ, honed through accumulated experience, and, in his case, through decades of careful observation of the history of art, the history of photography (moving and still), popular culture, and the spectacle of contemporary life.

Looking at his work, we come to better understand: what we see reveals to us how we think. Reading the image, we find ourselves.


For more images from “The Crooked Path,” go to

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