A scintillating retrospective featuring 40 examples of Jeff Wall’s stunning oversize lightbox photographs opens on Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art. Although frequent visitors to MoMA—as well as to London’s Tate, where a retrospective of Wall’s photographs closed just over a year ago—will recognize some of these images, the breadth of his work on display here highlights major themes and concepts behind his vivid tableaux, delineating the intriguing ways in which his still lifes and studio pictures have evolved over the past three decades. Rather than discussing the exhibit as a whole, instead I focus below on Wall’s techniques and effects by discussing some of his major works.
The show opens with Destroyed Room (1978), which immediately sets the stage for this virtuoso performance by illustrating both Wall’s great abilities both at evoking a famous work of art (here Delacroix’ 1827 painting The Death of Sardanapalus) as well as masterful director of props and lighting. For the many elements of this studio picture required extensive ripping, tearing, and arranging to create a scene of such destruction. Given our mediated relationship to photography in the Internet age, the viewer might wonder initially how and why this happened—while of course the walls belie the artifice of this entire scene.
In The Storyteller (1986) Wall rephrases Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), placing the picnickers of Manet’s painting aside a concrete bridge in relative squalor. Here the native people of Western Canada are depicted in an animated scene, one of rapt attention around a pathetic little fire that further underscores the wretchedness of their situation, divorced from modern society that whizzes by unseen on the bridge above. Another fanciful scenario, that of Eviction(1988) shows a woman leaping towards a man struggling to free himself from two security guards while the neighbors watch from the corner and next door. Again Wall cleverly taunts the viewer into recreating how this faked scenario will unfold: Who are these people? What are they doing? As with The Storytellerand next lightbox under discussion, A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (1993), here the seams running midway through the photograph—where both pieces of transparent print are sealed together—are quite visible, reminding the viewer again of Wall’s cunning creations and the craftiness of these scenaria.
In particular, how Wall evokes the painterliness of Hokusai’s classic High Wind In Yeigiri seems most brilliant: here the man’s hat swirls high above this irrigation canal; papers fly out of a sheath; leaves blow in the air. These disparate elements unite in the air—obviously a carefully contrived procedure whose artificiality nevertheless seems somehow entirely plausible. During this split second in time, those papers could indeed blow out of a sheaf; a woman’s scarf could indeed blow up over her head; a man’s hat could indeed fly away in the wind. Yet as with his street portraits such as Mimic (1982), Milk (1984), and Trân Dúc Ván (1988) the elements are carefully aligned to craft this precise moment in time.
In Milk (194), for example, note the tension in the man’s left arm and jaw. While the milk sprays out of the container, his arms are perfectly still and he stares at some distant point; the alienation effect is phenomenal here. Obviously to achieve just this split-second in time took extraordinary precision, which moreover appears accentuated by the muted earth tones of the bricks and shadow effects on the sidewalk.
When Wall poses multiple figures in a tableau vivant such as in Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush with a Red Army Patrol, near Morqou, Afghanistan, winter 1986 (1992), these flashback milieu achieve additional dramatic effect. The one real-appearing Pashtun digs obliviously in his bag (at left) while the Red Army soldiers act out mock horror—some with funny faces, some more heavily coated in theatrical blood and gory effects than others. Unseen figures hover over a pile of guns at the upper right, while the imagined battle scene plays out in full staged bathos. Do observe your fellow gallery-goers here, for this work sits in a room by itself. As with many of Wall’s oversize works, the effect is vastly different from afar than from close up. Seen thirty feet away, it’s but another image of gore with which we are presently daily confronted. In two visits to this show, it was intriguing to watch visitors merely stare briefly at this image from afar, then turn away, rather than enter the room. One suspects Wall would love this.
Similarly, the extensive artifice of A Ventriloquist at a birthday in October 1947 (1990) is augmented additionally by period costumes, here with props such as antique soda bottles, plates of half-eaten cake, and the genial lighting. Note especially highlights on the dummy’s face, the back wall and especially the ceiling. The balloons hover above the scene, drawing focus downwards to the children, who stare at rapt attention observing the dummy, who receives additional prominence through the V pattern in which the children are placed. The fifth child from right has a particular glow on her face, and the texture of the ceiling seems remarkable. How utterly deceptive that this highly staged photograph seems so remarkably 1940s.
A well-known lightbox from MoMA’s collection, After “Invisible Man” By Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (1999) utilizes perhaps more props and more creative lighting than any of Wall’s other works. Recall the Prologue, in which the protagonist lives obscured in a basement room, illuminated by over 1000 light bulbs. The sheer scope of this project is breathtaking, but Wall’s illuminated lightbox, itself a representation of illumination of the “unseen” man from dozens of sources, probably contains enough referents to produce a doctoral thesis—assuming such a thesis has not already been written.
Another scene of domestic solitude gone awry, Insomnia (1994) displays remarkable precision of the middle-of-the-night delirium, here evidenced by pepper shaker and butter dish next to the toaster, salt and ashtray on the table, open cabinets, and man under the table of his ruined tenement. With crumpled brown paper atop the refrigerator and dishtowel haphazardly placed over the edge of the chair—both chairs are at awkward angles—Wall creates a near-hallucination both with objects and shadow effects.
Finally, as with Dead Troops Talk, the lushest qualities of The Flooded Grave (1998) seem to escape the attention of many visitors, and you will want to hover nearby to observe them missing the most amusing and unusual elements of this lightbox—the starfish, sea urchins, anemone, and crayfish floating in this freshly-dug grave! For the humdrum elements of this graveyard—all the more intriguing due to the unusual perspective of Wall’s shot, plus the pile of dirt, the gravediggers, the shovel, the crows flapping about—distract from the real gem here, Wall’s artificial seascape. As Wall gave Artforum an account of the incredible amount of work that went into this project some years ago, suffice it to say here that The Flooded Grave remains an astounding work of tremendous genius. Note even the multiple earthworms crawling around the pile of dirt, as well as the cleverly placed hoses in background. Then meditate on all the possible uses of that green tarp while this scene was constructed.
That MoMA has finally bestowed a fitting retrospective on the brilliant Jeff Wall—this exhibit travels on to Chicago and San Francisco—merits an additional comment on the museum; specifically, its physical maintenance. Given the proper excoriation of MoMA’s overpaid and illegally-compensated director, Glen Lowry, that appeared one week ago today on the front page of the New York Times, it seems appropriate to comment once again on the dreadful use of space on the sixth floor of this museum. Just 30 minutes after the museum opened, I found a bathroom on this floor—reached after traversing a narrow and quite scuffed corridor—rather a mess. On both days the visibly bored and sleepy guards—some of whom I observed vigorous yawning—were also overheard chatting quite loudly and inappropriately with their colleagues about their grievances with security management. A pity I did not have my voice recorder with me! But given that this exhibition had not yet even opened to the public during my two visits, one wonders what members as well as first-time visitors might think about the performance of its director, who was paid $5.35 million between 1995 and 2003 and who lavished $858 million on Taniguchi’s dysfunctional building. Perhaps members—as well as visitors paying $20 a head—might suggest diverting funds to those facilities in urgent need of an overhaul. Today two out of three elevators serving the sixth floor were out of service—the one I found out of service two days ago had still not been repaired. Two of three sinks in the sixth floor restroom were out of order for several days. The one working sink, it should be noted, sprayed water in multiple directions, perhaps in homage to Wall.
Posted on 2/23/2007 ( Permanent Link )