New York

Jeff Wall

Mimicking the archaic mannerisms of traditional genre painting, Jeff Wall turns his camera on the nameless dispossessed. The large scale back-lit transparencies that result evade both the solipsistic dreariness that has come to characterize much recent “photography about photography,” and the formulaic drudgeries that frequently neutralize politically oriented efforts. If, as Wall remarked in a recent interview, he has managed to evade “the dream-world of art, to show something of the dirt and ugliness of the way we have to live,” he has done so less by documentary exposition than by a tautly managed rhetorical manipulation of the image and its conventions. Abundance, 1988, a photograph of two bag ladies rummaging through a box of discarded clothing, which Wall exhibited in New York last season, is effective precisely because its slickness and exaggerated theatricality undermine any pretense to verité-style reportage. He stages the scene with the precision of a big-budget rock video director: the rags are too clean, the standing figure too aristocratic in demeanor, and the lighting too artificially stark. This glimpse of everyday squalor appeals to social-realist conventions only conditionally as a moment in a shrewder dialectic.

Wall pokes fun at our uneasy relationship to the dispossessed subjects he depicts. That these underclass tableaux have been so fastidiously staged provokes a measure of anxiety on the part of the viewer, as important to the work’s overall effect as the straight narrative yield of the vignettes. Outburst, 1989, a recreation of a sweatshop erupting in unspecified violence, triggers the cliched association of a martial arts film poster. Wall coaxes a heightened visual plenitude from these images that contributes to their strangeness. There is something positively eerie in his use of sharp focus details, such as the masking tape hanging from the sewing machine in Outburst. The blinding mid-afternoon brightness in Tran Duc Van, 1989, exacerbated by the fluorescent back lighting, seems to burst at the seams with unrevealed subtext. The Goat, 1989, shows a gang of prepubescents posed to suggest a goon squad. They are headed by a cane-wielding, little-league Aryan, whose sadistic will to power is packaged as a stock cliché, and mitigated through notions of both child’s play and esthetic play. Only The Well, 1989, falls victim to the mannerisms Wall usually employs to startling effect. Instead of a peak at the underside of the image, it feels mired in its own artiness, evincing a willful and seemingly directionless opacity. If Wall has become in some sense a viable modern counterpart to Baudelaire’s “painter of modern life,” it is ironic that he has done so by making a mockery of the social-realist potential inherent in the photograph’s pretense to mimetic veracity.

—-Jack Bankowsky