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 border-town communities, are marginalized, dispossessed, and forgotten. Although his photos suggest the archetypal declarations of outraged, liberal-humanist, Life magazine-style photojournalism, Wall undercuts their cliched documentary “realism” by deliberately staging his scenarios, like a film director painstakingly framing a mise-en-scène. Thus Outburst, 1989, presents an Asian male violently menacing a seamstress while her coworkers passively keep working with barely a sidelong glance. Although Wall uncritically lays out the usual gender, class, and ideological power binaries, he also composes the scene with such overt theatricality that we are forced to question both the work’s ostensible liberal message and the formal parameters of its photographic (active) and painterly (virtual) languages.

Similarly, in An Encounter in the Calle Valentin Gomez Farias, Tijuana, 1991, a work specially commissioned for the exhibition, Wall reduces the complex economic and industrial dialectic of the border town to a violent standoff between a chicken and a dog at the foot of a rocky, trash-strewn street. Tijuana’s complex geopolitical status is thus represented as a blurry binary between first and third world economies, symbolized as country versus city, nature versus culture. Because of the scenario’s deliberate contrivance, we find it difficult to trust its hermeneutic position. Consequently, the work becomes a vehicle for examining the ideology of exegesis as well as a catalyst that simply encourages it. This is underlined further by Wall’s use of light boxes, with their connotations of street advertising or trade-show product presentations.

This makes the museum’s presentation of these works all the more puzzling and problematic. Curator Madeleine Grynsztejn has paired each tableau with a text that actively interprets what we are seeing. Writerly exegesis is piled upon visual exegesis in such a way that we suspect Wall himself wrote the texts as a strategy of further reterritorializing his own critique. The problem with the texts, however, is that by overdetermining the photographs still further, Wall’s own visual “text” is betrayed as not critical enough. Alternatively, if we accept Grynsztejn’s interpretations as part of the work, then both artist and museum become implicated in the hermeneutic process, leaving us, the viewer, in an aporetic position, questioning our entire interpretive role. This ironically makes for a far more interesting analysis than that produced by Wall and Grynsztejn’s hermeneutic cross-purposes. The museum’s misguided intentions show the shortcomings of all concerned while paradoxically raising issues of considerable exegetical interest.

Colin Gardner