Jeff Wall

Like the chameleon we remember from childhood picture books, whose color modulates to match the background, the light-box Jeff Wall has unswervingly employed in his work since 1977 has changed over the years, or rather our perception of it has. Evocative of technology and advertising at the end of the ’70s, emblematic of “photoconceptualism” in the ’80s, the light-box has today acquired a virtual patina. Indeed, as a familiar, almost conventional element in the repertory of contemporary art, it can even seem somewhat dated (a sign, ironically, of its relative youth). Given all this, one may well wonder that Wall has never replaced it with a less cumbersome means of presenting his work, something less dependent on the artist’s hand, such as the flat video screens showing digitized masterpieces that will decorate Bill Gates’ housing complex (even here in France we’ve been forced to hear all about it). But Wall seems fond of these vitrines, with their thick aluminum casings, and of splitting his large-format photographic images into two parts which he then glues together again, edge to edge, a process that the use of Cibachrome transparencies demands. In this way, the light-box points to its status as a thing—a thing in spite of everything.

The most direct consequence of this perennial recourse to the light-box is the striking homogeneity of Wall’s production. But it quickly becomes obvious as one views the 19 works displayed here (which range from 1989 to 1995) that Wall’s strategy consists of deviating in a variety of ways from the coherence the light-box affords. It is impossible to reduce Wall’s use of the light-box to a mere signature effect, as there is a strictly dialectical play at work here: the typological constant serves on one level to reveal the range—of genres, subjects, as well as formats—his images explore; on the other, it gives this diversity a sense of continuity. Wall deploys his range of references cautiously, with no attempt to shock by resorting to extremes, an approach echoed in the installation at the Jeu de Paume, where works tended to be grouped according to certain thematic and formal—even chromatic—affinities.

Because photography (much more than painting) always preserves something of its referent, it tends toward what semioticians call the “mimetic transparency of the iconic sign.” Appropriately enough, from the very beginning of his career Wall has employed photographic prints called transparencies, choosing to avoid the slightest degree of opacity (blurry or grainy images, arbitrary repetition or division in his shots) in his chosen medium. But this is only seemingly the case. In addition to setting up the tableaux vivants he photographs, Wall has recently begun to manipulate his images on the computer, which allows him, for example, to seamlessly join elements within one image that are in reality totally dissociated from one another, calling into question his adherence to an ideal of transparency. The Giant, 1992, which greeted the viewer at the entrance to the exhibition, is a case in point. The work depicts a gigantic older woman (about five times life-size), standing naked smack in the middle of a university library whose patrons seem oblivious to her. (With wonderful irony, this 15 1/2-by-19-inch work was one of the smallest images in the show.) This is a vision of perfect illusionism, but one that carries a warning: the image, the result of a thoroughly worked-out construction, is, to use a phrase from Poussin, “a lure or trap that persuades the eyes.”

If Wall can be said to favor transparency in his use of photography as a medium, his subject matter is nothing short of opaque. The viewer, who cannot be unaware that these tableaux have been painstakingly constructed, can only “ask, most insistently, for clues to their meaning. The first step consists of looking for some kind of key element in the image, a search that usually proves fruitless. In rare cases, however, it leads to the discovery of an obviously significant detail. For example, a close examination of Adrian Walker, artist, drawing from a specimen in a laboratory in the Department of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1992, reveals that the somewhat shabby book on the windowsill across from the draftsman is, in fact, Cervantes’ Don Quixote (a detail that is all but invisible in the catalogue reproduction). This discovery leads us to question not only what Wall thinks of the somewhat anachronistic activity of this artist, who is absorbed in tracing an anatomical fragment in red crayon, but also, in broader terms, what kind of portrait of the artist Wall is painting. Then we have to consider his motives in choosing such a figure, as well as what that choice implies about the relationship between ”manual" and photographic reproduction.

Looking at A Ventriloquist at a Birthday Party in October 1947, 1990, the work to which I was most drawn in this show, I groped for something on which to base my reading. The date mentioned in the title is of little help. I can only note that it marks a period before the artist’s birth, and thereby dismiss any possibility of an autobiographical allusion. (Indeed, it is doubtful whether recourse to the autobiographical would ever prove of any use as far as Wall is concerned.) The image does contain some vaguely disturbing details, such as the two tiny windows that decorate the back wall or the repulsive ugliness of ventriloquist’s dummy, not to mention the claustrophobic atmosphere, accentuated by the lighting, of the scene as a whole. At most, as I pore over the vast, lighted surface, I might notice that the clock sitting on the little table against the left wall and the one on the fireplace show two different times. But what are we to make of this? This discrepancy might merely be due to the carelessness of a stagehand. Or maybe the time lag has something to do with the presence in the photograph of both Asian and Western children. What captivates me is the stillness and silence of these children, who, mouths closed, are watching the simulated words and movements of the puppet, a simulation parallel to that of the image itself, which bears witness to the words and movement that elude it. This kind of paradox could be called hiatus (from the Latin hiare, “to open up, gape”). Figures and meanings collide and come to rest in a precarious equilibrium that opens the door to interpretation or narration.

Other works seem equally rich in possibilities. Untangling, 1994, depicts a man in work clothes busy untangling a thick skein of rope that suggests a strange, vanquished monster. This picture has a directly mythological resonance: the individual’s struggle to escape the tangled threads of fate that control his destiny reads as an allegory for the construction of meaning. In the same way Jello, 1995, another reference to childhood, draws us into an apparently insignificant drama (some Jell-O spilled on a table and onto the floor). But this is only the trace of another, more momentous, though ineffable event, perhaps even a traumatic one; observing these little girls who seem at once present and inexplicably absent, as if enveloped in a bubble of solitude that cannot be burst, we remain convinced that “something happened.” Unfortunately, Wall is not always so skillful. Odradek, Taboritska 8, Prague, 18 July 1994, 1994, makes explicit reference to a short story by Kafka, “Cares of a Family Man,” which tells of a little creature fabled to live in houses. Basing his work on the writer’s description, the artist has discreetly set what might be an equivalent of this fairy-tale creature under the staircase that a young girl descends—a one-to-one correspondence that forces interpretation in one direction and closes the image in on itself. In addition, in a real lapse that emphasizes the heavy-handedness of the illustrative impulse behind this work, Wall presented the text of his short story next to his light-box. By contrast, works like Park Drive, 1994, a banal and desperately mute image of a road winding through the trees, offer no toehold for the viewer at all. But here too the problem of what I have called Wall’s strategy comes to the fore. Some paths lead nowhere, and not every detour is worth taking.

Jean-Pierre Criqui is editor of Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne.

Translated from the French by Warren Niesluchowski.