New York

Jeff Wall

Three exterior sites comprise Jeff Wall’s recent exhibition of his trademark fluorescent-lit and aluminum-framed Cibachrome transparencies. An Encounter in the Calle Valentin Gomez Farias, Tijuana, 1991, the most naturalistic of these, records a scene of stark, rural poverty: shacks line a steep, eroded dirt track that diminishes to a vanishing point on a high horizon line. More hallucinatory than other Wall photographs, Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol near Mogor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986), 1991–92, is a sprawling, gory tableau of shell-shocked soldiers, oblivious to their own dismemberment, dementia, and impending death. Compelling in its implausibility, The Stumbling Block, 1991, pictures an urban sidewalk scene in which a woman falls over a prone hockey-type player in full regalia, while passersby gaze dispassionately at her plight. Each illuminated photograph enacts themes of defa-miliarization and the grotesque common to Wall’s practice, and each must be read on multiple levels.

What lies beyond the crest of the horizon in Tijuana is a heavily patrolled border that enforces the exile of this dry gulch settlement to the fringes of our monied and privileged world. It recalls Jean-Francois Rafaelli’s and George Seurat’s paintings of the dead zone of urbanism: what was once the banlieu of industrialized 19th-century Paris, populated with the displaced and homeless, has become the third world of late capitalism. A rooster and dog in territorial standoff occupy the foreground of the rugged, picturesque landscape. Flanked on either side by emblems of consumption and mobility—a car’s rear bumper and a discarded tire the implied violent outcome of their encounter symbolically illustrates the transposition of “natural law” into the dogma of Social Darwinism: the “natural” right of economic powers to consume preindustrial societies. In fact, very little is unfamiliar in what purports to be as close as Wall has come to a documentary image.

Conversely, Afghanistan typifies Wall’s controlling compositional technique, which parallels cinematic production: scouting a location, assembling and rehearsing a troupe of actors, and multiple shoots. This “horrors of war” homage conveys the dark, carnal delirium of Goya’s cycle of paintings. Closer, though perhaps not literal, references include George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, 1979, and images of recent wars are always near at hand. The play between the “fictional” quality of this photograph of gruesomely mutilated bodies, and the “reality” of its referent acts as a reminder of what lies beyond the censored and constructed images of the mass media.

The Stumbling Block is vintage Wall. As uncanny in its imagery as an anxiety dream, nothing that happens makes sense, yet it is all very familiar. The woman who falls over the strangely clad player does so without registering any expression. A businessman sits nearby staring dumbly at the ground. Pedestrians take the incident in stride. The trancelike subjects are animated only by the geometric fenestration of surrounding glass office blocks, and the intricate skein of crisscrossing electrical wires forming a web above their heads.

Wall’s pantomimes, whether the gritty animalia of Tijuana, the slaughter in the dust of Afghanistan, or the stolid urban inhabitants of Stumbling Block, speak only partially of alienation. The unfamiliar is nourished with recognizable elements from disparate sources: here from art history, there from contemporary life. The convergence of multiple forms of media and narrativity resists normative linear readings while invigorating the memory codes of cinema, documentary photography, genre painting, and commercial electronic imagery. These synthetically complex overlays self-consciously resist closure, prolonging the intercourse between vision and visual literacy, reinvesting pictures with the potential to mean.

Jan Avgikos