Jeff Wall's vivid, lambent photographs hover between the observed and the imagined, between the commonplace and the surreal. A spectacular retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art reveals a photographer who draws keenly on the monuments of the past to make work that is resonant but fresh. Majesty is not a word often used to describe contemporary photographs, but it applies to Wall.
In a recent masterpiece, three people loll on a suburban lawn. An uncombed, bearded man wearing a T-shirt that reads "Bukowski" hunches over a bent paperback. Light dapples his beefy arms, emblazoned with tattoos. A few feet away, a redhead folds herself into a contorted pose. Her skin, too, is ornamented in ink, and she is struck by a shimmering ray that cuts through a canopy of trees. A beautiful girl reclines in the background, her darkish skin caramelized by the sun.
Wall has updated Manet's "Déjeuner sur l'herbe," substituting a duet of hipsters and a dark-skinned beauty for the Impressionist's quartet of dandies and semiclothed models. He draws our attention to the artificiality and strangeness of Manet's painting, which its status as a classic now makes it difficult to see. At the same time, Wall is emulating Manet by pointing out how momentous ordinary life can be.
Both have heeded Baudelaire's 1845 exhortation to paint the "heroism of modern life." The poet and art critic proclaimed to a generation grappling with the rush of industrial modernity, "The one who will be the painter, the true painter, is the one who will know how to grasp life's present in its epic dimension." A century and a half later, when the present is changing in different ways, but just as fast, Wall aspires to such an epic of the mundane.
Born in 1946 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wall faced a dilemma common to his generation. In the early 1970s, when he was starting out, the avant-garde declared that the great lineage of painters had died out, and good riddance. Even the modernist masterworks of Picasso and Pollock were deemed retrograde, mere commodities produced to feed the maw of capitalism.
A real looker
But Wall also got pleasure out of looking, and guiltily craved the old-fashioned satisfaction of making beautiful things. He labored briefly in the mines of conceptualism, extracting austere, intellectual nuggets of political art that ultimately repelled him.
In 1971, he quit fine art altogether, determined to pursue a career in cinema. It didn't pan out. Photography, too, appeared to be a dead end. Though he admired the work of such canonical masters as Robert Frank and Walker Evans, he saw the documentary tradition as played out. For seven years, Wall created nothing. He thought and he struggled, trying to reconcile the things he loved - narrative, emotion and psychological realism - with the constraints he had imposed on himself.
"I remember being in a kind of crisis at the time, wondering what I would do," he said in 1985. "Just at that moment I saw an illuminated sign somewhere, and it struck me very strongly that here was the per- fect synthetic technology for me." Printing photos on transparent sheets and illuminating them from behind, Wall was able to achieve a potent blend of painting, cinematography and photography, inspired by the backlit advertising signs that enlivened city streets.
In a tour de force from 1984, a hobo with greasy hair and untied shoelaces crouches on the sidewalk before a nondescript urban building. Nothing moves, but milk explodes from the paper bag he is holding in a volcano of white droplets. It's an utterly mysterious, utterly compelling picture composed of prosaic parts. Amid the harsh, minimalist geometries of brick, concrete and glass, Wall offers an elliptical human drama, stunningly inexplicable and intense.
The image is a "near documentary," to use Wall's term, rooted in a scene he had observed and later reorchestrated. He was one of the first to redeem directorial - that is, staged - photography, which had long been tainted with commercialism and kitsch. While fashion and advertising cameramen had always set scenes and groomed actors, their "straight" counterparts considered such interference with reality almost immoral. Wall rejected that rejection, and constructed sets, directed actors and scripted scenes, searching for a theatrical power he felt was lacking in contemporary art.
Inspiration from movies
Around the same time, Cindy Sherman directed the first of her black-and-white "Film Stills" in which she deployed makeup, wigs, thrift-shop throwaways and a jumble of props to impersonate the heroines of ambiguous fictional dramas. Both artists embraced movies as inspiration, and both attempted to transcend them.
Wall focused on marginal types: bums, drug users and poverty-stricken families. One of his finest works, "The Eviction," is an aerial view of a lower-middle-class Vancouver suburb, all trimmed lawns and blooming rose bushes. Tiny and distant in their little segments of the vast panorama, a boy rides a bike, a woman pushes a shopping cart - and a pair of eviction officers grab a man by the arms while his wife leaps towards them and a little boy looks on from the shadowed threshold of their threatened home.
In his poem about Breughel's painting "The Fall of Icarus," W.H. Auden wrote: "About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters; how well, they understood/Its human position; how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along."
Wall's "Eviction" is, in a sense, a photograph about that poem about a painting. By miniaturizing his suburban drama and setting it against the banal orderliness of the neighborhood, he captures that same wrenching simultaneity of dullness and disruption, of indifference and desperation.