Photographer Jeff Wall takes on the old masters

Jeff Wall’s photographs open up wide perspectives on hushed and enigmatic scenes. A figure collapses on a sidewalk at night, barely visible in the shadows. A man slams his front door to peek down the hall. A trio of women pluck chickens at a table. An open grave fills with water.

These panoramic, monumental scale close-ups, crisp and crammed with carefully assembled detail, hint at stories we can’t piece together no matter how long we watch. Examining one of these images is like parachuting in the middle of a multi-season TV series: you don’t know what’s important or what’s already been explained, but you feel the stake. Each painting, full of tension, looks like a moment before calamity or a near-over tragedy before anyone notices.

Glenstone, an elegant arrangement of concrete boxes in a leafy estate outside of Washington, DC, hosted the largest wall retrospective in the United States in 14 years, and it’s mind-boggling. As I prowled the impeccably stripped down galleries, I thought of Bruegel’s Icarus, falling from the sky disregarding it as the rest of the world continues the heckling of everyday life. WH Auden, in his poem “Museum of Fine Arts”, pointed out the disturbance in this bubbling winter landscape:

About the pain they were never wrong
The old masters: how well they understood
His human position: how does it work
While someone else eats or opens a window or walks sullenly.

In his 2010 work “A Boy Falls from a Tree,” Wall also depicts a (perhaps tragic) fall as the natural world hums. The stage is a lush suburban courtyard. Greenery explodes around the tool shed. The leaves float in the sun; the grass unfolds like a velvet carpet. Distracted by the profusion of this manicured, civilized landscape, you almost miss the boy, twisting awkwardly as he tumbles down a high branch.

The wall uses light, color and objects to distract from the main event, surrounding the action in the atmosphere. A blue plastic swing is suspended from a branch by two strands of yellow rope, evoking an early stage of childhood. The misfortune unfolds in the shaded space between the hut and the tree, so that it practically disappears. A garden, a disgrace, a loss of innocence – Wall alludes to big themes, without specifying how the viewer should feel about them.

“The Destroyed Room” (1978) © Jeff Wall. Courtesy of the artist and the Glenstone Museum

In “An Eviction”, his approach is even closer to that of Bruegel. In the original square-format version from 1988, a pair of uniformed bailiffs grab a man by the arms as his wife rushes towards the struggling group. From the shaded threshold, their little boy watches. In the 2004 reissue, the camera moves back much further, giving us an aerial view of a subdivision that is somewhat seeded, a mixture of manicured and bushy lawns. There are more cars parked along the street and more onlookers to witness – or ignore – the family’s mortification. Relegated to tiny sections of the massive diorama, a grandmother pushes a shopping cart, a neighbor peeks between two trees, a girl is cycling along the sidewalk. Life hobbles in its prosaic way, barely touched by the outburst of despair.

Amid all this ambiguity, the artist makes an unequivocal claim: that he belongs squarely to those infallible old masters. “The destroyed room” (1978), one of the first works exhibited, draws its blood-red palette and electrifying composition from Delacroix’s “Death of Sardanapalus” (1827). Here, no plump pasha facing his own end, no bruised concubines executed on his orders. Instead, we get sequelae: a torn mattress that reflects Delacroix’s sharp diagonal, stray pieces of costume jewelry, and the value of a strewn stiletto shoe closet. An open door reveals that the crime scene is a stage set, its walls supported by wooden struts, meticulously composed violence. It’s artifice all the way down.

“Photo for Women” (1979) © Jeff Wall. Courtesy of the artist and the Glenstone Museum

Another early work, “Picture for Women” (1979), evokes the “Bar aux Folies-Bergère” by Manet. Wall and Manet both portray a young woman staring exhaustedly, her hands resting on a counter, bracing herself against a man’s attentions. A mirror reflects the scene she sees in front of her, capturing the artist’s cold, analytical gaze. But where Manet fills the reflected bar with bustle, light sconces and a huge chandelier, Wall stages a dark gray loft illuminated by bare bulbs hanging from exposed pipes. The camera occupies the center of the frame. And wait – this time the mirror is not behind the woman but in front. The subject and the portrait painter stand not face to face but side by side, meeting the reflective gaze of the other.

Wall probes the gulf between the brilliant ambition of his technique and the misery of his scenes. With an obsessive attention to verisimilitude, he positioned every crumpled rag and darkened every carpet stain. In “Excavations” (2009), agents in bulletproof vests rummage through a box of papers in a poorly furnished apartment. Every decorative touch – a lace tablecloth, an incongruous chandelier – accentuates the fugue of disappointment.

‘Finding Premises’ (2009) © Jeff Wall. Courtesy of the artist and the Glenstone Museum

Like Manet, Wall responds to what Baudelaire called “the heroism of modern life”, the immense struggles rooted in ordinary existence. Both come out of the epics of the banal. But Manet could draw on the long tradition of greatness in painting; in the early 1970s, photography was still a small-scale medium. Wall wanted to make it big and he wanted it to shine with the sparkle of oil.

He dabbled in painting and gave it up, hated conceptual art, found street photography overwhelming, and pursued a dead end career in film. For seven years he did nothing, searching for a way to merge storytelling, emotion, art history and psychological depth, while still satisfying his need for total control.

In the bus in the depths of his crisis, he saw a luminous advertisement that revealed his fate: a staged photograph, lit from behind and enlarged to the scale of a history painting. He could do that! Wall began printing photographs on transparent sheets and mounting them on light boxes so that the image became a sculpture. He built sets, hired actors and scripted scenes that looked like documentaries, becoming the author of his own living universe.

Back in the days when every home didn’t have its own large backlit screen filled with high-resolution images, Wall’s images had a unique strength. More recently, he abandoned the lightbox in favor of even more lavish color inkjet prints.

“Summer Afternoon” (2013) © Jeff Wall. Courtesy of the artist and the Glenstone Museum

In the 2013 diptych “Summer Afternoons”, we see the same room from two different angles: fuchsia armchairs, egg-yellow walls, a double mattress covered with a madras sheet. In one, a man is lying naked on the ground, his body twisted away from the viewer. In the other, a naked woman is lying, like Olympia, on the bed, expression empty, her feet pointed towards the sunny window.

Wall’s penchant for mystery blossomed to fill the two great frames. Do these two people share a house? Do they even know each other? Nothing seems to pass between them, no current jumps from one photo to another. And this impenetrable loneliness is Wall’s most constant theme, the tragic feeling that whatever fierce upheaval a person may feel, it barely registers on someone else’s emotional seismograph.


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