San Diego

Jeff Wall

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego | Downtown

In painting, the tableau has traditionally been used to freeze a continuum of action into that exact, pregnant moment in which past and present come together to predetermine an inexorable future. It is a technique most commonly used in grandiose history painting (David’s The Oath of the Horatii, 1784, or The Death of Socrates, 1787) but also in smaller-scale genre works, such as Jean-Baptise Greuze’s overwrought family dramas. Most important, however, is the tableau’s innate overdetermination: its stagy mannerisms defamiliarize its formal machinations as much as they suck us into its narrative.

Jeff Wall’s large-scale photo light boxes use the same strategy, reworking the painterly tableau through the language of photographic social realism in order to deconstruct both. Wall’s subjects, whether exploited immigrant women in sweatshops, alienated Vietnamese refugees, or the utter squalor of

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