Jeff Wall @Marian Goodman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 large-scale photographs (one a triptych), unmatted in gray wooden frames. Six of the eight are hung in the North Gallery and remaining two are found in the smaller North Gallery viewing room. The prints were made with various processes: inkjet (4); silver gelatin (2); lightjet (1); and cibachrome (1). One work dates from 1997, another from 2011; the others are from 2014-15. Sizes vary from roughly 66×53 to 95×126 inches. The 1997 work is in an edition of 2 with no AP; most of the others are in an edition of 3+1AP except for “Changing Room” (2014) which is an edition of 4+1AP. (Installation shots below, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery; photos by Cathy Carver.)

Comments/Context: Almost all artists repeat themselves. Some do so deliberately; others can’t improve on past performance. For the latter, when the same routines carry expectations of canned responses, the sensation of déjà vu can feel insulting.

With Jeff Wall, however, an artist whose blurring of the once inviolate lines in photography between fabricated and off-the-cuff, staged cinematic panoramas and small-camera reportorial content, the sense that we have been here before, only adds another unstable layer to his pictorial riddles.

If in the past his photographs often referred to paintings, sculptures, prints, and photographs from the Realist canon—whether by Velázquez, Manet, Hokusai, or Edgerton—he has in the last 15 years become canonic himself. I can no longer tell when he is quoting yet another image from the annals of art history and when he may be quoting himself. After all, he’s been making pictures now for almost 40 years.

In this latest show, which consists of 6 photographs from 2014-15 as well as one from 2011 and another from 1997, Wall continues to portray marginalized people and ordinary scenes from contemporary life and to give them the grand scale of 19th century history painting. The characters in this show include a cluster of refugees, asleep outdoors in the sand under colorful blankets as the sun comes over the horizon (Daybreak); a woman with a dress over her head at a clothing store (Changing Room); and an overweight man in a corridor peering down at a briefcase (Office Hallway, Spring Street, Los Angeles.)

Listener is another in Wall’s series of choreographed “decisive moments,” akin to the interrupted action in Doorpusher, Milk, Storyteller, An Eviction, The Stumbling Block, A Fight on the Sidewalk, and Mimic. Here we’re given ringside seats at a fistfight on a featureless piece of ground. A shirtless young man is on his knees, apparently knocked down in the sandy dirt; he props himself up with his right hand while his triumphant opponent, fully dressed, leans down to taunt or issue an ultimatum. Six men, three on the left of the frame, three toward the upper right, are an audience that looks on.

As a former student of the Marxist art historian T.J. Clark, Wall is careful to add touches to his directed pictures that suggest the economic status of his protagonists. The men who have traded blows, and those watching the action, are Caucasian. The clothes they wear—jeans, work boots, track suits, t-shirts—mark them as working class. That they’re fighting outdoors, and on scruffy terrain that could be a construction site, reinforces this interpretation. As a picture of proletarian hand-to-hand combat, it belongs to the gutbucket Realist tradition of Bellows and Menzel.

But the title is not straight-forward and indicates the photograph isn’t telling us everything. The “Listener” may be the standing man bending over the fallen one, waiting to hear words of apology or surrender. Or the “Listener” may refer to the beaten man, forced to listen to his opponent’s challenge as part of his further punishment. Or perhaps the “Listener” is us, metaphorically speaking, as we lean toward the picture, trying to discern what is happening without the benefit of sound? And is the absence of a definite article in the title supposed to provide more freedom for all three readings?

Changing Room is another ambiguous scene of a person on the borders of respectable bourgeois society. Is the woman with the dress over her head trying it on? Or is she instead stealing the one underneath it? The presence of a second dress, identical in its red pattern to the one on her body, suggests that we are witnessing a petty crime. Like an accomplice hired as a decoy, though, Wall distracts us from this observation by making the woman into a slinky collage, a faceless body, like an imaginary creature by Max Ernst or Frederick Sommer rather than a well-trained shoplifter.

The 2014 triptych, Staircase and Two Rooms, depicts interiors in a low-rent apartment house. In the left panel a wary man stands at the door, perhaps listening for someone about to descend the empty staircase, the main feature of the central panel; on the right panel a tall African-American man in a robe stretches provocatively on a bed.

A color scheme of purple and blue dominates in all three panels. The walls are lavender while the door frames and the newel post and the bedspread are grape. Are the two men enemies? Is one gay and the other homophobic? All three photographs rely on strong diagonals to cut off a more complete vision of the scene, a sign perhaps that we were not intended to get the whole story, only a thin slice of it.

Wall excels if several dynamics are in play, when his many contrivances are disguised and a tension between the staged and the documentary, the literary and the non-verbal, keeps you guessing about the reality and truth of photography.

Property Line is a lesser picture because these elements aren’t held in check. A desert scene where two surveyors have set up their sticks in a barren expanse, it’s a reminder that Nature can be Property, and that every landscape in our capitalist world is a piece of real estate.

Are the piles of darker dirt on the road indigenous to the the place where Wall set up his camera? Probably not. They look imported by an assistant, added for tonal contrast like daubs of paint in a Corot. The illusion of photography suffers when you think you have observed the magician’s sleight-of-hand.

I’ve never been convinced by Wall’s black-and-white prints, so many of which have the gray consistency of wet concrete and look overinflated to his preferred monumental scale. Approach is typical: a homeless person in a blanket and bare feet—man or woman, we can’t be sure—looks at a shelter of boxes wedged against a wall beneath an overpass. (It could be his or hers or another homeless person’s.) Monochrome may be suitable as an allusion to the photography poverty, but the fabrication of the documentary style adds little to that honorable tradition except for the fact that its size (and price) are supposed to elevate the image into the realm of art.

Wall’s intelligence can’t be denied, and this small batch of new and older pictures represents no fall off in his studied practice. Grading on a steep curve, though, given his previous high achievement and my high expectations, I couldn’t help wanting more than more of the same.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $500000 and $1 million. Wall’s prints have only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past few years, with none of his best known images coming up for public sale. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $25000 and $518000, but this is more a reflection of the specific lots that have been sold at auction than a representative data set of the entire breadth of Wall’s finest work.

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    This show is simultaneously being shown at the Marian Goodman gallery in London, where I saw it a couple of weeks ago.

    If it wasn’t for reading some of the magazine reviews that were provided at the desk I’d have missed the most obvious of narratives, that of the dress being stolen. I would have just enjoyed it at the level of it being a visually appealing surreal form. So it made me go back and work a lot harder to try and establish out how specific a meaning was present in some of the other photographs. The people I was with and a random student making notes I asked were clear they were open to various interpretation, there was no particular reading possible. Hm.

    I felt that, at least in some of the work, Wall exhibits a pattern of choice-making that makes possible an arguable case for a specific interpretation at the end of that. The point is that every choice he has made along the way has a consequence ‘The Listener’ is the best example of this.

    The more you examine the five standing guys (six actually but one is almost totally obscured) the more the interpretation narrows down to something fairly precise – and if it were not so then Jeff Wall messed up at some point in his mise en scene and editing. Dig out the choices he made (it’s not a documentary photograph after all, it’s all fabricated) and for me it led me to reverse my initial casual impression that these are the bad guys. It took a while but eventually I worked out that the guy on the ground, the listener, is in fact the transgressor.

    There are a lot of things that do the work of implying meaning, this is Wall’s raw material, whether it be casting his actors, the clothes, body language, even the softness of hands, and to the gesture of the guy second from left anxiously twisting his wedding ring etc. etc.).

    Particularly crucial is that the guy on the left of the frame is looking directly at the camera (and in a particular way) which at some level identifies the photographer as one of the group. Reinforcing this is that this guy has his arms folded and accepts the photographer.

    Sad to read that Wall has regrets over pursuing a career in photography and the grief he gets from realist-photographers. But something he said about glimpsing a scene in real life and feeling a compulsion to re-enact it in a considered way makes sense. In fact after the show I was seeing intriguing moments out there that I was filing away like I am sure he does.

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