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Jeff Wall

Jeff Wall at The Ydessa Gallery

C Magazine #13, June 1987.
[ 672 words ]


Deceptively serene images marking interrupted borders, contaminated typologies, distorted subjects; such inbred themes predominate in Jeff Wall's transparencies. This latest exhibit of six backlit pieces reflects these matters through a neat split in genre: three works are of the posed and often insoluble type characteristic of Wall's stage management; the others are landscapes of the Fraser River delta bordering Vancouver. What is interesting in this is that by proceeding outside studio confines into urban and suburban spaces, the work takes on additional urgency and compulsion. Wall's images have lost that cosmetic air of reconstructing art historical conceits, and thus more thoroughly engage the critical discourse of picturing.

Abundance, the only interior shot in this show, brings urban typology into prominence. Essentially the portrait of two 'bag ladies' rummaging through a thrift box, Wall has taken this indigent-type to be emblematic of the nadir of commodious acquisitiveness. The foreground figure extends a lead leg in a pose of princely dominion, culling resemblances from Velasquez, Manet and fashion photography, but she looms over throwaways and fresh vinyl bags ready for loading. The inference of 'vanity' — consistent with the emblem tradition — is typed as well, devolving from the consumptive economy parodied by these persistent, marginal consumers.

Equally marginal is The Thinker, placed on a plinth before the vista of the city, hand to chin, with a bayonet stabbed in his back. Again a loss of dominion is pictured, but this time it is the domain of effective thought that is questioned. Wall takes this figure from Durer's woodcutter (the Peasant Column) and from Rodin's pastoral, and puts him into the urban landscape of built forms and communications. Against this teeming material of concentrated activity, the romanticism and pathos of thinking through the lot becomes pointed like the blade. The work delivers this state upon the viewer as well, through the shocking theatricality of its stunted pain. Similarly, the invective of the speaking woman in Diatribe is unaddressed to the spectator, being an unspecific and unanswerable plaint directed to a missing partner. The unresponsive face of the woman's companion, and the disconsolate look of the child the speaker holds, only serves to underline the 'dead letter' quality of this picture.

The kind of consoling and meditative actions intimated in The Thinker and Diatribe appear cancelled by the messy edge of urban development they take as setting. The three landscape works, all from 1980, treat the subject in the same forbidding manner. Although pleasant views proliferate as an effect of studied composition, the pieces convey the tarnished Arcadian disruption typifying Vancouver's south slope. Rows of contemporary houses give way to industrial plants and verdure; condominium developments encroach on truck farming in Steve's Farm (Steveston). The freshly-dug graves and ordered tombstones of the once banished Jewish Cemetery echo the repetitive forms of urban construction, and Wall's images coalesce on such loaded formal concerns. Even his dilute references to the Northern landscape in painting serve to give an historical inertia to the scenes — it was the ancestors of those picturers who made this place, from George Vancouver to the delta's 'Fantasy Gardens' champion, Bill VanderZalm.

It is that sort of pictorial intricacy that produces discomfiture and an effect of sublation in reaction to many of Wall's images. If they portray losses — of type, of thought, of communication or control — they do so by removing the illusion of instantaneity in picturing. In its place they offer depleting effect derived from allusion, from the emblem and from the fractured anecdote. They evoke thoughts of labyrinthine depth welling from tradition and modernity, but not so as to display nihilistic, bombastic confidence. Rather, the sense of having lost one's place, even the place of one's immediate locale, comes forth as a means of recognizing the state of our mixed blessings.


C Magazine #13, June 1987.

Text: © Jeff Wall. All rights reserved.

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