December 10th, 2015
Jeff Wall at Marian Goodman
In Jeff Wall’s most recent work, massive prints impart a cinematic quality to everyday life.
By Zoë Lescaze
Interpreting Jeff Wall’s photographs can feel like trying to catch an animal, one that knows it’s quicker than you: A possible meaning will stand relatively still, humoring one’s advances, only to suddenly dart out of reach. This enigmatic quality stems partly from the tension between Wall’s subject matter and his method. For nearly forty years he has photographed seemingly mundane moments that, in fact, are meticulously staged. These images, with their carefully scouted locations and casts of amateur actors, thwart our attempts to deduce the internal logic driving their creation. Alluringly elliptical, they lapse into banality when the formula falters.
Wall’s current exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York is compact, comprising only eight large photographs, but eclectic in its motley subject matter. Approach (2014) depicts a short, seemingly homeless woman standing alone on a dark, trash-scattered sidewalk. She is wrapped in a blanket, gazing down at a makeshift shelter of battered cardboard boxes, as though visiting a grave. In stark contrast on a nearby wall, Changing Room (2014) transports the viewer to a brightly lit fitting room in Barneys New York, where a slim woman wearing a crisp red dress with white flowers is trying on another garment. From the waist up, a tangle of busily printed fabric has transformed her body into a strange, sculptural mass. It’s unclear whether she’s wrestling this second piece of clothing on or struggling to escape the frenzy of garish zebra stripes, python scales, paisley teardrops, and kaleidoscopic arabesques. Both Approach and Changing Room share a certain suspense, needling us with unnerving narratives we cannot fully unravel.
When they fail to conjure any intrigue, Wall’s images feel tedious and their enormous size only exaggerates their flaws. Blander pictures like Office Hallway, Spring Street, Los Angeles (1997), a black-and-white photograph of a man pausing in a dingy hallway, can make one nostalgic for the dark humor that characterized Wall’s ambitious earlier works. One craves the macabre complexity of The Vampires’ Picnic (1991) and Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moquor, Afghanistan, winter 1986) (1992), in which mangled soldiers lounge around the battlefield joking about their fatal wounds.
Born in Vancouver in 1946, Wall began making his cryptic narrative photographs in 1977, the same year Cindy Sherman embarked on her Untitled Film Stills series. At that time, Wall’s works were remarkable not only in their rejection of the “decisive moment,” but for their monumental scale and allusions to nineteenth-century painting. They would influence a generation of younger photographers, including the often more heavy-handed work of Gregory Crewdson. Wall’s project has recently suffered some overexposure (on the heels of recent museum retrospectives, he currently has exhibitions at Marian Goodman’s London branch, at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, and at the Pérez Art Museum Miami), but his project continues to hold its ground in an ever-expanding field of oversized photography, one that includes the work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Andreas Gursky (and other members of the Düsseldorf School). While certain artists lack solid conceptual ground for printing big, Wall’s pictures are massive for a reason. At their best, the scale complements the cinematic quality of his scenes, enhancing the magic and mystery of their absent drama. Through these photographs that fill our field of vision, Wall immerses us in thoughtfully constructed worlds of uncertainty, doubt, and elusive salvation.
Zoë Lescaze is a writer based in New York.
Jeff Wall is on view at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York through December 19, 2015.