Vancouver-based artist Jeff Wall (Canadian, born 1946) has studied and practiced art since childhood—his first studio, in fact, occupied a converted toolshed in the backyard of his family home. Although he began painting and drawing at an early age, his access to art was mostly limited to books, many of which illustrated 19th- and 20th-century paintings or mid-20th-century photography, such as Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man, through which Wall first encountered the work of American documentary photographers. Wall’s early interest in art and, perhaps more importantly, image production was heightened by a visit to the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, where he first viewed modern painting and sculpture directly. Seeing these works—including canvases by Americans Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline and Europeans Jean Dubuffet and Francis Bacon—left an indelible impression on Wall. His artistic education continued throughout many of the subsequent 15 years; he experimented with the new conceptual strategies of the 1960s and attended London’s Courtauld Institute of Art in the 1970s, immersing himself in art history, critical theory, and film.
Wall’s interest in painting and photography crystallized in 1977 on a trip to Spain, where he found echoes of the Prado Museum’s great paintings by Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Goya in the luminous light boxes used in the bus-kiosk advertisements he passed as he traveled through the country. After returning to Vancouver, he began to produce works that use the format for which he has since become well known: photographic transparencies mounted in aluminum light boxes. By the late 1970s, Wall had committed himself to photography, although, in his words, he “. . . did so from a position pretty much steeped in painting and sculpture, but one where photography had already made an entrance by a sort of side door.”
Wall’s first major work, The Destroyed Room (1978), was originally exhibited at Vancouver’s Nova Gallery as a photographic transparency installed behind the gallery’s front window, facing the street. Although its installation gave it the appearance of a store window display, the image itself bore little resemblance to the typical decorous seductions of mannequins, clothing, and consumer goods. Loosely inspired by Eugène Delacroix’s grand painting The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), The Destroyed Room depicts a woman’s ruined bedroom—heaps of clothes and personal belongings are strewn across the floor, and the furniture, doors, and walls have been damaged or demolished. It is an image of violent upheaval, which, like the Delacroix painting, can be understood as an act of “publicized privacy.” Wall describes The Destroyed Room as “cinematographic”—a term that encapsulates much of his artistic practice from this piece onward—meaning that it was shot in a controlled setting, indoors or outdoors, in which the subject was prepared in some way.
The images that result from this technique rely to varying degrees on staged or constructed artifice. Working as a film director might, Wall uses sets, lighting, camera angles, and actors to stage a narrative or effect an illusion. Other early pictures by the artist also follow this strategy: Picture for Women (1979) adopts the composition of Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) while revising its depiction of the relationships between men, women, observers, and observed; Double Self-Portrait (1979) turns the artist’s twin gazes back toward the viewer and may be seen as a presage to Wall’s later adaptations of photomontage.
It is important to note the seam—sometimes obscured by the image, at other times clearly visible within it—that travels through each of these early works, literally and figuratively connecting both the photographic process (separate pieces of film spliced with tape) and the photograph’s implicit components (camera, mirror, subject). In both Picture for Women and Double Self-Portrait, Wall insisted on including himself in the picture frame, a move grounded in the history of painting but further complicated by photography and its primary tool, the camera. Although his emergence from behind that apparatus was short-lived (Double Self-Portrait was his second and final self-portrait), in hindsight it seems perfectly fitting that he should have made the move early on, as he embarked upon a single-minded assault on the presumptions and powers of photography.
While such cinematographic, staged productions figure prominently throughout Wall’s oeuvre—in Milk (1984), The Storyteller (1986), and A ventriloquist at a birthday party in October 1947 (1990), for example—they were originally conceived as expansions of or reactions to photography’s traditional role as a document or, more specifically, reportage. Wall closely studied the work of Robert Frank and other mid-20th-century American photographers, but he found himself frustrated by the limitations of their process—in which circumstances were found and images were snapped, shot, or “hunted” (as street photographer Garry Winogrand said) rather than constructed in the way that a painter builds images in paint on a canvas.
Mimic (1992) begins a subgroup of pictures that Wall refers to as “near documentary”—pictures reconstructed from Wall’s remembered experiences. Mimic is based on a racist gesture that Wall witnessed on a Vancouver street. He reenacted the scene and shot it on location, simultaneously replicating and critiquing photographic practice, which inherently deals with mimicry. (Mimic also references the formal composition of the famous 1877 Gustave Caillebotte painting Paris Street; Rainy Day, on view in Gallery 201.)
Wall’s use of photomontage began in the early 1990s as digital technologies became more accessible. For him it offered a way to create pictures that were purely imaginative, even hallucinatory, like Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986) (1992) and The Flooded Grave (1998–2000). Shooting multiple images and assembling them into an almost-seamless unity—first through mechanical means, then through digital-imaging techniques—Wall was able to produce pictures with an uncanny sense of dreamlike, suspect hyperrealism. He also created works that use photomontage to depict situations or events that have or could have happened, but that Wall decided were not necessarily best shot as a single-frame photograph. These pictures—including Restoration (1993), A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) (1993), Overpass (2001), An Eviction (1988/2004), and, more recently, In Front of a Nightclub (2006)—involve highly complex processes of montage, in which numerous images are employed to create an entirely original picture.
Throughout his exploration and development of photographic practices, however, Wall has produced works evidently informed by traditional photography. His early panoramic, landscape pictures—for example, Steve’s Farm, Steveson (1980), The Old Prison (1987), and Coastal Motifs (1989)—are the first of his images that the artist referred to as “documentary photographs.” The tradition of landscape photography is clearly channeled in these depictions of contested spaces. In 1990 Wall made Some Beans and An Octopus, initiating a subgroup of still lifes and a process that is, relative to that of his cinematographic works, less interventionist. These initial still-life pictures were followed by Diagonal Composition (1993), Diagonal Composition no. 2 (1998), Diagonal Composition no. 3 (2000), Rainfilled Suitcase (2001), and Staining Bench, furniture manufacturer’s, Vancouver (2003), all of which are curiously similar in their compositions—they result from an attentiveness to a corner that, in turn, directs us and keeps us in the picture.
Jeff Wall is one of the most acclaimed and influential artists of his generation. Over the last three decades, his intellectual precision and critical acumen have helped to place photography at the very center of contemporary artistic discourse. This exhibition presents an overview of Wall’s extensive career, featuring 41 important works, including most of his major pictures.
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