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The Museum of Modern Art, New York; 2006 Jeff Wall
No, But I Saw the Photograph: Jeff Wall's 'After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue' illustrates a significant moment from the famous novel.


Jeff Wall thinks big about how we see and process photography

By Michael S. Gant

CANADIAN artist Jeff Wall's reputation and reproductions precede him in abundance. But given his basic display tactic—supersized color transparencies mounted in aluminum boxes and illuminated from behind by fluorescent tubes—books and catalogs about his works can't adequately stand in for the pieces themselves. They need to be seen in person; a retrospective covering the last 30 years continues through Jan. 27 at SFMOMA.A name isn't a destiny, but Wall stakes much of his artistic project on wall-size images, some nearly 7-by-12 feet. At this scale, with a steady, pure light behind them, the photographs become like movie screens or, more accurately, immense flat-panel TVs. Looking at one is like being in a theater studying a perfect freeze frame. And Wall's photographs are cinematic in everything but motion. They are often carefully staged scenes involving posed actors and even (in later pictures) digital manipulation and montages made from multiple takes.

In one of the best works, After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue, Wall constructs the basement room where Ellison's unnamed black narrator inhabits a shabby, cluttered self-contained world exposed under a ceiling full of hundreds of bare light bulbs sucking power illegally from the municipal grid. Blankets cover the doorway; the man is figuratively walled off from the above-ground world, where he is invisible to white society.

The level of detail just about surpasses the eye's ability to take it all in. The light bulbs come in an array of shapes, each with a distinctive filament. They hang from the ceiling of this figurative cave like blown-glass stalactites. The scene could be a director's calling card for the long-sought film adaptation of Ellison's seminal tale of race in America.

Other similarly elaborate constructions don't always work as well. A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) updates the famous Japanese woodblock artist's image to four figures walking by an industrial canal (minus Mt. Fuji in the background). The spray of paper sheets blown away from a backpack and scattering like leaves up into the sky is a technical marvel, but the photograph doesn't add anything to what Hokusai figured out compositionally almost two centuries ago. A ventriloquist at a birthday party in October 1947 illustrates an imaginary moment not attached to a literary or art-history referent. As balloons stick to a harshly lit low ceiling, a clutch of shell-shocked kids stare at a grotesque dummy on the ventriloquist's lap. It's funny in an eerie Chucky kind of a way but closed off rather than open-ended like the Ellison image—this is one movie I don't want to see emerge from its still. Dead Troops Talk appears at first to be a tableau of war's horrors, with slaughtered soldiers strewn across a rocky hillside, but closer examination reveals that the "victims," sporting special-effects gory wounds, are mugging and making goofy faces for Wall's lens. Wall, I assume, is critiquing historical war photographs, which were sometimes just as carefully stage managed (i.e., Roger Fenton's 19th-century images of the Crimean war, which have agitated everyone from Susan Sontag to Errol Morris), but the effect seems merely trivializing.

Wall is a learned art historian, and many of his works echo and transform 19th-century studio and academic paintings. His primary argument is that photography isn't simply a window on reality; not only do photographers manipulate light and exposure, they can also build whole scenes, just as painters once posed models in their studios to make pictures of historical events.

In that way, Wall is the anti-Weegee. Struck by a fleeting moment in the "world," he doesn't surreptitiously snap off a frame with his Leica; he goes back to his studio and "re-creates" the moment on a heroic scale. As far as Wall is concerned, the debate over the "truthfulness" of photographs has passed; photographers are just like painters. What you see isn't reality (much less truth), or even a simulacrum of reality; it is reality transmuted by an artist. A lens isn't a privileged conduit from the actual but just another paint brush.

At times, the results can look overdetermined. The body sprawled beneath a kitchen table in Insomnia detracts from the unblinkered starkness of this grotty kitchen, with its pale turquoise cabinets framed by the unrelenting white surfaces of a refrigerator and a stove. The picture would be more revealing without the person, whose presence shuts off the viewer's imagination.

The tension is held in balance in An Eviction. At first, we absorb a slightly elevated view of a nondescript street cutting through a suburban neighborhood at the edge of a metropolis. A landscape this mundane rarely rates such concentrated attention—it resembles one of San Francisco hyperrealist Robert Bechtle's uninflected paintings of cars in front of tract houses. Eventually, the eye catches sight of two cops wrestling with an agitated man—the evictee—while his wife rushes to his aid. The tiny people hold a friezelike pose that could have come from a Greek vase. The infinite and the minute co-habit; what does one minor tragedy mean in an entire city?

All the tension is drained away from some of the landscape views. A backyard garden is indifferently composed, and Coastal Motifs, his long shot of a cloudy sky above mountains and a river, doesn't distinguish itself from the illuminated commercial art that one might find in a travel agency office. Here, the light-box technique defeats Wall's efforts to elevate it to a higher artistic plane. I found myself preferring Wall's quieter, more abstract notions. Sunken Area is a giant close-up of the narrow horizontal siding on a house; the play of dark strips of shadow beneath each row of siding creates an almost Op-Art effect that is undercut by the scrawny weeds growing at the base of the wall. A tightly framed and angled shot of a heavily used Staining bench, furniture manufacturer's, Vancouver looks like a splatter painting.

Strangely, given Wall's history, I was most impressed with his black-and-white photographs, which he started experimenting with in the late '90s. Passerby has a sinister aura. Two men pass on a nighttime sidewalk, caught in a glare of light on the right side, as if a passing patrol car had turned its spot on the incident. The most remarkable piece is Night, a huge black-and-white gelatin silver print of a bridge and shrub-covered abutment above a shallow expanse of water. Looking at the this photo is like doing surveillance work; eventually your eyes adjust to your surroundings and details surface from the blackness. The concrete elements from the bridge above reappear in the water below. Keep looking, and the denizens of the night appear—drifters huddle under blankets in a far corner. This slow process as an initially dark surface reveals its secret is more cinematic than any of Wall's light boxes.

JEFF WALL shows through Jan. 27 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., San Francisco. Tickets are $7–$12.50. (415.357.4000)

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