Up Against Jeff Wall

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Photo-bloggers like the indispensable Alec Soth have been having a field day with Jeff Wall lately — for instance, here and here and here.

All of this comes in response to Wall’s coronation by way of a traveling MoMA retrospective that just opened in Manhattan and an adoring cover story in the New York Times Sunday magazine. (To say nothing of my own humble contribution in Time.)

Early last year I visited Wall in his studio in Vancouver to see what he was up to. What he showed me turned out to be a painstakingly constructed illustration of a scene from a Yukio Mishima novel. That picture confirmed for me my general impression of his paradoxical career. Wall approaches each picture or series of pictures (like his total of three book illustrations) as a way to inquire into a new set of problems. But one thing he does again and again. He uses the anti-art strategies of conceptualism to give himself ideological cover as he re-examines the most retrograde and even sentimental practices of the past. History painting, genre, literary illustration, even “beauty” — he yearns for them all. He’s a resolute modern artist with a longing for the past, a radical softie. And if you’re drawn to his pictures at all, and sometimes I am, it’s probably because, by way of those practices, he offers pleasures that painting has largely left behind.

But even when he tries to regain the power and pleasures of representational painting, he’s careful not to be too easy to grasp. (A shortcoming in a lot of Gregory Crewdson pictures.) In particular, Wall’s been interested in a problem that has pre-occupied painters from the time that clear narrative started to leach out of painting in the 19th century — how to balance meaning and ambiguity. A few bloggers and their readers have shrugged over one of the biggest and most recent images in his MoMA show, In front of a nightclub, 2006, so let me tackle just that one.

In front of a nightclub— Jeff Wall/Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

This is a picture that’s apparently as “pointless” as the most accidental snapshot. But in fact it’s an insanely conscientious creation that took weeks of effort, set building, costuming and lighting, all for the purpose of producing a false impression of slice-of-life instantaneousness. Then it invites you to examine this pointless scene — which he has also blown up to epic size; to the scale of 19th century history painting — with the equivalent effort.

What we can learn from the most formless moments of life and how to learn from them is a longstanding preoccupation of art. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had been reading Milan Kundera’s new book length essay about fiction called The Curtain, in which he argues that sifting through the quotidian is one ofthe most important things the novel can do. Something he says in there reminded me of Wall’s picture. “The novel alone could reveal the immense mysterious power of the pointless.” The novel alone? Maybe not. Pictures make the attempt all the time. I think this is what Garry Winogrand was after towards the end of his life, when he sometimes simply hung his camera out the window of a moving car and took pictures of everything that went by.

One other thing. Interweaving layers of reality and falsehood are a post-modern obsession but by no means something that the post-modern ’70s ushered in. For one thing, the fluctuations between reality and fiction in Wall’s Nightclub picture remind me of Shakespearean theatre. I mean actual Shakespearean theater, at the time of Shakespeare, when adolescent boys played all of the women’s roles. Which means that in, say, Tweflth Night, in the scenes in which the lady Olivia falls in love with “Cesario”, who is in fact the lady Viola disguised as a boy, what the Elizabethan audience was seeing was a boy pretending to be Olivia courting a boy pretending to be a woman who was pretending to be a boy. Which means a boy pretending to be a boy. You do the math.

Final point. For the record, there is no substitute for painting. And no substitute for photography either.