Jeff Wall

Ydessa Gallery

Jeff Wall’s boxed-in, backlit, Cibachrome images have a crisp, clear sense of trespass. His format—appropriated from the world of advertising—takes ultrastudied, art-historically derived images across the line that separates media culture from high art.

This is sacrosanct territory for appropriation art: the place where art and commerce conduct proprietorial battle over the image. Wall’s contribution is in making an appropriation art that refuses to settle the score, refuses almost to play the game. All that’s left is a kind of brute visibility, an image where the ideological constructs of image-making seem to have only a half-hold on what we see. And it’s not for want of trying. The recent photographs shown here—Diatribe and Abundance, both 1985, and The Thinker, 1986—are elaborately coded pictures safely at home with the assumptions of their genre. Wall puts his iconographic energies toward creating a “place within representation” for people generally excluded from it. He borrows compositional motifs from Courbet, Velázquez, and Darer to show a black woman, a young mother and child, two bag ladies, and an immigrant worker assuming artful poses against contemporary backdrops of suburban landscapes and thrift-store interiors. Legitimized by their staging within the picture, the people in these images are poised between the pomp of art and the grind of economic circumstance. The setups work to pigeonhole them as victims of an articulated discourse among art, culture, and business.

But there is nonetheless something completely untethered about both people and places in these pictures. They seem diminished by even this sympathetic encoding, turned into abstractions that drift off into a wayward abundance of visual detail. Each image is a high-resolution muddle, a cobbling together of signage that makes its point yet disengages from the real. With Wall it’s as if any kind of image-making comes down to aggression and simplification, becoming a critique of the process itself. His work falls back on its purely descriptive aspect, offering it as the only reliable template of the world that’s still out there—the solid world that somehow finds itself, with increasing distress, mixed up in the scrim of imageland.

Richard Rhodes