Summary of Jeff Wall
Known as both an artist and art historian, Jeff Wall is a Canadian photographer and writer whose work simultaneously showcases and challenges some of the most dominant assumptions about art and art-making. Since in the late 1970s, Wall has created large-scale photographs that recall the imagery, subject matter, construction, and display methods of both pop culture advertising and cinema and the celebrated masterpieces of art history. His early photography shares qualities and themes with Conceptual art, as well as aspects of Appropriation art of the 1970s and 1980s, by investigating the assumed, required elements of fine art and borrowing narrative and visual details from outside the established art world genres. In his wall-sized, brightly lit photographs, Wall combines opposing concepts in the same image, confronting viewers with questions of fabrication and authenticity, spontaneity and artistic process. Much of his subject matter comes from moments that Wall has witnessed, read, or heard in his own life. But, rather than exactly replicating those moments, Wall recreates these scenes to his own liking, changing visual and physical elements as he pleases and depicting the scenes as frozen moments in the middle of an event. Through his photography, Wall attempts to allow the meticulous craft of fine art to enter the imagery of the everyday, all while indulging his own visual and narrative desires and inviting viewers to indulge in their own as well.
- Wall carefully stages the scenes he photographs, intricately designing every detail to achieve his desired visual effects. Ironically, the final images often appear to be mid-action, spontaneous, and candid moments. Although a photograph traditionally captures a single moment in time, Wall's photographs also document the culmination of a time-consuming and laborious process to produce an artistic vision that intentionally obscures the creative process itself.
- In Wall's earliest photographs of the late 1970s and 1980s, clear references are made to some of the most famous paintings in the history of art since the Renaissance. Wall admits that in nodding toward the titans of early modern painting, such as Delacroix and Manet, he was "trying to continue an idea of historically and theoretically informed production." At the time, many contemporary artists were rejecting the presumed grandeur of fine art painting in materials, style, and subject matter. Quite uniquely, Wall uses modern-day items and scenes to compose his photographs, but designs these compositional elements in ways that clearly hint at earlier landmarks, showing reverence to both art history and to contemporary artistic interests in the same space.
- Rather than emphasizing the intimacy that photographs can carry through their small sizes and abilities to capture fond, personal memories, Wall challenges this intimacy by making his photographs large in size and displaying them in light boxes. The surprising scale of the photographs, along with the intense brightness of the images, commands the viewer's attention in the way that big, illuminated advertising signs do in modern life, from bus stops to billboards. The visual intensity of these photographs can elicit a diverse range of responses from their audiences, as viewers are thrust into the private lives and spaces of the people in the photographs or into environments that range from war-torn to idyllic.
Biography of Jeff Wall
"I saw the Velázquez, Goya, Titian - I loved it and wanted to be part of it somehow," Wall said of his 1977 trip to Spain, "Every time the bus stopped, you were looking out the window, and there was a sign in a light box. I began to think, It's luminous, Velázquez was luminous, I'll try it" So he created large photographic transparencies placed within a light box, lending the monumentality of the Old Masters to his subjects whom he described as "men [who] have been thrown on the garbage pile."
Important Art by Jeff Wall
The Destroyed Room, from 1978, is one of Canadian artist Jeff Wall's first and most iconic photographs. The work consists of a large photograph printed as a cibachrome transparency within a fluorescent lightbox. Around 5 by 8 feet in size, the work is both vivid and imposing. Offering a stark view of a seemingly ravaged space the image forces the viewer to confront the destruction of items found within the typically intimate space of a bedroom. Clothes are spilling out of the drawers of a wooden dresser, a bed is turned on its side with its pale green mattress slashed, possessions such as clothing and accessories are strewn about the floor, and large pieces of the red wall are missing, exposing the pink insulation underneath.
With this photograph, Wall first began making overt references to some of the most famous examples of classical painting from the 19th century. In The Destroyed Room, the large-scale oil painting titled The Death of Sardanapalus, painted by Eugene Delacroix in 1827, is the source of inspiration. The painting depicts an Assyrian king, Sardanapalus, casually reclined on an enormous red bed as he watches his most prized possessions - living and non-living - being destroyed. The slaughter of concubines and servants, horses and dogs, was prompted by an invading enemy. Rather than surrender, the king decides to end his life, but not before ensuring that his belongings would never be enjoyed by anyone else. Many elements in Wall's photograph echo the visual details of Delacroix's painting, including the diagonal composition of objects from the top left corner to the bottom right corner of the frame, the bright pink and red hues that invoke the nudity of the female concubines and the blood of the violent acts, and the likely evidence of physical struggle.
While The Death of Sardanapalus depicts an act of violence as it occurs, Wall shows an aftermath. Whereas the painting shows the luxurious space of a male ruler, the photograph seems to show a woman's small living space. Wall's work is devoid of people, though, leaving the viewer to imagine who might have occupied the space and why the room became destroyed. However, Wall has purposely left remnants of the staging process of the scene in the final image, making the fabrication of the room obvious. Upon scrutiny, it's possible to see that at least one of the room's three walls is only barely supported with wooden beams. In an article entitled "The Luminist" in The New York Times Magazine on the occasion of Wall's retrospective exhibition in 2007, Arthur Lubow remarks how Wall has admitted that he enjoys the process of artistry just as much as the final product.
In The Destroyed Room, Wall not only hints at the creative process, but also engages with the questions raised by Conceptual artists of the time. Throughout the 1970s, photography was increasingly used by artists to call attention to the fabricated quality of art and the performance of subject matter and ideas within artworks. For these artists, including Wall, photography was freed from its role of visually capturing the real world. By creating a large-scale, fictional image that recalls the grandeur and narrative of classical painting, Wall challenges the documentary role that photography often plays. But by mounting the image in a lightbox, his work also resembles imagery from cinema or advertising found in popular, contemporary culture. Thus, Wall simultaneously highlights the real and imagined in art, raising photography to the level of fine art typically held by painting over the ages while referencing elements of the modern day.
Jeff Wall's photograph Picture for Women, from 1979, continues the artist's investigation of 19th century painting within the framework of contemporary photography. The image reveals a reflection in a mirror of a sparse studio room, furnished with metallic office chairs, a work table, uncovered lightbulbs, pipes, and cinderblock. Despite the mundane scenery, the composition of the image follows traditional aesthetic rules of photography, such as dividing the picture into thirds, balancing the composition both horizontally and vertically. In the left third, a woman stands with her hands resting on a long table or bar, solemnly confronting the viewer. Wall's camera is in the center of the image, and Wall himself stands in the right third; his body faces the camera, but his face is turned toward the woman. He holds the camera's shutter release cable in his visible hand, confirming his authorship of the image before us. Although this work is also mounted within a lightbox, like his previous work The Destroyed Room, calling to mind the visual qualities of film or large advertisements, such as billboards, the presence of the photographer within the final image departs from the invisibility of the makers of those elements of popular culture and modern consumerism.
Picture for Women addresses the male gaze, a topic increasingly analyzed, debated, and often resisted within the art world in the years surrounding this picture's creation and display. The work is also an homage to one of the most famous paintings by Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), which Wall would have seen in the collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art's Gallery - where Wall studied art history in London. In Manet's painting of this famous Parisian cabaret, where patrons could not only purchase drinks but also sexual encounters from the barmaids, a female bartender stands in the center of the frame confronting the viewer with an emotionless expression, as if waiting to hear her patron's order or request. Since the viewer can clearly see the back of her body reflected in the mirror along with the face of a man facing her, the viewer is directly implicated in the scene by supposedly occupying the very space of the patron. Not only do we see the male gaze in action, we are also participating in it. Similarly, Wall's photograph puts viewers in the center of the image by aiming the camera lens directly at us, highlighting our participation in the observation of the woman in the photograph while also witnessing Wall fix his male gaze upon her too. The viewers then also fall victim to the male gaze, as the photographer supposedly captures our image with the camera as well.
Just as other artists and scholars were exploring the processes and consequences of the male gaze in various media, Wall was forcing himself and his audience to investigate it in historical and aesthetic terms. Simultaneously, Wall's early works from the late 1970s and 1980s engage with questions of appropriation, as he adds to the conversation of postmodernist pastiche percolating in those years. In these photographs, Wall borrows distinct visual elements and narrative concepts from previous artworks, particularly oil paintings considered hallmarks of artistic achievement in the canon of art history, but he redesigns them for contemporary environments and audiences. Experiments with artistic and cultural appropriation within the framework of contemporary art and photography questioned traditional definitions of what art had to be, and what it could display. In his essay from 1977 for an exhibition he organized at Artists Space in New York City, Douglas Crimp referred to the works of contemporary artists engaging with the problems and themes of appropriation as "pictures". By using this broad umbrella term to identify these works, of which Jeff Wall's photographs are akin, Crimp emphasized what he saw as their most important quality: "recognizable images." In many ways, Wall's early photographs certainly make use of recognizable images, while challenging the common understanding of these images, their contexts, and their users.
Wall's A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), reinterprets the scene in a woodcut print by Japanese printmaker and painter Katsushika Hokusai. Part of the larger portfolio called The Thirty-six Views of Fuji, Hokusai's original image, Travelers Caught in a Sudden Breeze at Ejiri (c. 1832), depicts seven individuals caught off-guard in the wind at different points along a narrow path. The path weaves its way through lush green and blue fields, with the majestic Mount Fuji resting in the background. In Wall's photographic work, the individuals caught in the wind in the foreground mimic the poses of the travelers in the earlier woodcut, but otherwise evoke a time and place far removed from the calm Japanese landscape.
Wall's large-scale image is actually made up of multiple photographs taken over the course of several months, then later digitally combined to create a final collaged composition. Four figures appear caught mid-movement, situated at different points in front of a canal of water cutting through an otherwise barren field. We see mostly flat lands stretch into the background, with a row of power lines receding on the right side of the image, suggesting a more industrialized location than the site in the original woodcut. A figure at the far left of the group crouches slightly, head obscured by a displaced scarf and hand holding a red folder that is losing its paper contents in the wind in a diagonal direction up and over the group to the right. Dressed for the outdoors in rubber boots and hat, another figure in the center bends with his back against the wind, clutching his jacket and walking stick. To his immediate right, the other center figure (dressed more formally, in buttoned shirt and tie) desperately looks upwards, arms outstretched and torso turned, as if ruefully watching the papers disappear into the wind. Finally, a figure at the far right crouches down closer to the water in the canal, holding on to his hat lest it escape. To the left are two tall, thin trees bending in the wind and nearly touching the top of the frame, their leaves blowing off and mixing with other papers scattered in the air. Taken together, the scene appears to be a random moment frozen in time, even when the elements seem incongruous. As arranged, these visual details beg more questions than they answer: the viewer is caught mid-story, unaware of why these people are gathered in this empty, dull space, or how this scene relates to that of Hokusai's travelers.
Although this work continues techniques and themes first explored in Wall's earlier photographs, it adds new layers to the broader investigation of photography's role in both portraying reality and creating fictional narratives. This is also a large transparency displayed in a lightbox, with the light source coming from behind the image rather than spotlighting it from the front. The artist's use of these big lightboxes to display photographs has often been discussed in reference to Wall's interest in film, as the cinematic image is obscured until seen against a bright light. Here, too, just as the gaps between individual frames of film are hidden when the reel of film is in motion, Wall also attempts to mask the gaps that took place in time between the original photographs and the traces of their separate frames when combined all together in the final composition. In this way, Wall blurs the line between reality and fiction. On the one hand, the photograph displays real people caught in a real gust of wind. But on the other hand, it also displays an imagined scene that never existed in reality as it is presented to the viewer. As such, the viewer is left to wonder about what they are actually seeing. Wall may find his inspiration in the examination of influential works from earlier artists, but he reworks these compositions in ways that challenge the assumed narratives affiliated with certain times, places, and people, as well as the assumed uses of particular visual media.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Jeff Wall
- Jeff Wall: Complete Edition (Contemporary Artist Series)Our PickBy Thierry de Duve
- Jeff Wall: Picture for WomenBy David Campany
- Jeff Wall: Specific PicturesBy Stefan Gronert
- Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and InterviewsOur PickBy Jeff Wall
- 'Marks of Indifference': Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art (1995)Our PickBy Jeff Wall
- Jeff WallBy Peter Galassi
- Jeff Wall: Tableaux Pictures Photographs 1996 - 2013By Jeff Wall
- Jeff Wall summarizes his workOur Pick
- Jeff Wall lecture at the Pinakothek der Moderne (2013)
- Conversation between Wall and Thierry de Duve about his artistic process
- Jeff Wall Interview: Pictures like PoemsInterview with Marc-Christoph Wagner at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
- Conversation between Jeff Wall and photographer Thomas DemandAt The National Gallery Victoria, Australia