The Jeff Wall show at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam contains fewer works than the large retrospective held at Tate Modern in 2005-2006 – the score is thirty-seven against more than fifty. Also, it covers a shorter period than the London presentation of two and a half decades of work. And there is some serious overlap with the older show. Still, the Amsterdam exhibition is probably the better.
Jeff Wall 1978-2004 at Tate Modern followed a largely chronological path. It led visitors through the artist’s career, neatly divided in segments – a tried and tested format the London museum has also applied to the likes of Gerhard Richter and Louise Bourgeois. The Stedelijk does not follow a strict timeline. It limits itself to works from the past seventeen years, only showing the mature Wall, whose artistic positions have fully crystallized. The starting year, 1996, was chosen with good reason. This was the year Wall, who up until then had concentrated on producing light boxes, started making analogue photographs in black-and-white. Four years later he added inkjet color prints to his expressive arsenal.
The best way to enter the exhibition is from the side of the former main staircase. After the almost ritual ascend, the large central hall that hosts Wall’s famous light boxes oozes with a majestic quality. Seven of these large-scale color transparencies bathe the space in a milky light. This is the radiant focal point of the exhibition, which stretches out to the adjoining rooms.
Wall started making his light boxes in the seventies. At that time, photography was barely considered a fully-fledged art form and only in a very limited way. In line with the strictly formalist dogma of the time, art photography could only be in black-and-white, of limited size, and highly cerebral. Not one to run with the pack, Wall opted for the extreme opposite. He shot his photographs in full-blooded color, printed them on transparent sheets and mounted them on light boxes – a style and technique he adopted from commercial advertisement.
Wall uses the term “cinematography” to describe his labor-intensive working method. One photograph may take up to a year to produce, the works resulting from a long process of sketching, thinking, looking from a thousand angles, building sets, arranging, waiting for the right light and weather. Wall is one of the most radical pioneers of modern staged photography, leading the way for artists like Gregory Crewdson, Teresa Hubbard & Alexander Birchler, and Erwin Olaf.
But unlike his disciples, who tend towards a shininess reminiscent of Hollywood movies, Wall makes pictures that – at least at first sight – show nothing but the everyday. Empty streets in his native Vancouver, returning vacationers hauling suitcases to the parking lot, the back of a building, a guy cleaning windows. These are very casual scenes, often devoid of action, not exciting at all. They look documentary, with a snapshot quality similar to vernacular photography.
Jeff Wall, Man with a Rifle, 2000, transparency in lightbox, 226 x 289 x 25 cm; Courtesy of the artist
But they do not come in series, the way documentary photography does. And, more importantly, they are huge, typically measuring several square meters. Wall calls them “tableaux,” a term directly linking them to nineteenth-century painting that subsequently places them in a museum context where viewing is all but casual. For the concentrated eye, Wall’s images unfold like tableaux vivants, like short films condensed into a single still. Sometimes, there is a strong narrative element. Man with a rifle, showing a man with a bewildered look holding an imaginary gun and ducking behind a car, speaks of urban angst; After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, The Prologue (1999-2000) – a black man doing the dishes in a cluttered room with a million light bulbs hanging from the ceiling – even refers directly to literature.
Wall was one of the first to digitally enhance his images, carefully constructing collages of tens or even hundreds of pictures. But the results are never of the special effects-type popular with film studios’ CGI-departments. Even at his most flamboyant, Wall is mildly surrealist, as illustrated by The Flooded Grave (1998-2000), which shows an open, waterlogged grave teeming with ocean life. More often, the manipulation is almost invisible. Only when looking closely at A View from an Apartment (2004-2005) does one realize that the interior and exterior views have the same unnatural crispness, that all glass or metal surfaces – from picture frame to TV-screen – act as shiny mirrors, and that the window pane reflects at least two lights presumably behind the camera; yet there is no trace of camera, flash, or photographer. By bending the frame of photography, Wall tweaks reality.
Always going against the grain, Wall starting making monumental black-and-whites by the time color had become the new standard. It had taken him twenty years to build his own darkroom and only then could he seriously start producing the large-scale images he envisioned. His black-and-white photographs are a sort of counterpoint to his light boxes: dark and tactile versus radiant and smooth. They have a certain brooding quality. Cyclist (1996), for example, shows a hooded man at night, hunkered down over his bike, leaning against a wall – asleep, drunk, stabbed? With the title Rear, 304E 25th Ave, May 20, 1997, 1.14 & 1.17 pm (1997) Wall once again plays with the documentary connotation; the scene of a destitute girl standing in front of a closed basement door, a small frame at the bottom right showing her hands reaching for the knob, could spell attempted theft or simply show a poor tenant who has lost her key.
Jeff Wall, Boy Falls From Tree, 2010, color photograph, 234.3 x 313.7 x 5.1 cm; Courtesy of the artist
Since 2000 Wall has been producing color prints. With this new technique he has returned to the painterly approach. His dry, slightly uneasy humor remains: there is something at once unequivocally hilarious and sad about a body-painted rock band in front of a handful of spectators, most barely moving. Across from Band and Crowd (2011) hangs Boy falls from Tree (2010), a typical Wall. You can only imagine how the artist has choreographed the accident in this luscious green suburban garden. Of course, he didn’t wait around for Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.” This is reality as constructed by Wall, who in the catalogue is quoted saying: “I start working on a photograph by not photographing.”
(Image on top: Jeff Wall, After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, The Prologue, 1999-2000, transparency in lightbox, 174 x 250 x 5 cm; Courtesy of the artist.)