Jeff Wall

Until October 9th, I had never seen Jeff Wall's work in person; I had pored over reproductions in art books, feasted on his writings, and modeled my own work in his shadow, but never stood in front of his images. On October 9th, I did, and I didn't feel a thing. Mr. Wall has had a long career as a photographer, but also as an art-historian, writer, critic, and philosopher. His thoughts have been insurmountably important to the understanding of contemporary photography in relation to the rest of the fine arts. My original attraction was to his early work, in which he would directly reference historical paintings and interpret them into contemporary settings. The intellectual prowess involved was magnetic. As I matured, I found those unappealing and heavy-handed, preferring more understated color works such as The Flooded Grave. As I recognized the importance of emotive response in my own work, I began to respond to his black and white images which had previously seemed sub-par. Mr. Wall has been a constant influence in my work, which is why it was terrible to enter the gallery, stand in front of his art and feel decidedly indifferent.

Search of Premises, 2008Knife Throw, 2008Men Move an Engine Block, 2008

The first two rooms meandered in intention, feeling unresolved. All the images were done in Mr. Wall's near-documentary style, but their underlying ambitions struck wide. Emotionally distant, the pieces ranged from near-theatrical with House Search to strict neo-realism with Moving A Carbonator. Others, such as Knife Throwing, fell somewhere in between these two images, but failed to bridge their differences. His most successful pieces concentrated on unsustainable in-between actions. Polishing, from 1998, depicts a man in an awkward position, polishing his shoe. The viewer feels the man's discomfort, recognizes that in a moment, he will be awkwardly twisting out of his uncomfortable stance. There is an immediate physical response to the image that convinces the viewer to consider it for a few moments longer. But most of his images avoid this tension, instead catching people mid-stride or mid-bite; capturing one moment of an act that by its nature will be immediately repeated.

Hillside In Sicily, 2008 Hillside_size
Hanging in the last room was Hillside in Sicily. It was monumental. The only landscape in the show, the absence of people added to its starkness. At such a large scale and in black and white, one loses themselves in the texture of the bushes, the line of hill against the sky. It was heavy with an undefinable austere sadness; haunting. It was all the more powerful because it was about nothing, but also about everything. By not defining its subject, it was able to speak generally (and universally) to the human condition. By stripping its color, Mr. Wall was able to allow a basic landscape to become abstracted and represent a mood, an emotion. In that, it hits a cord that the rest of the show misses in its specificity. Long ago, Mr. Wall said that "The spontaneous is the most beautiful thing that can appear in a picture, but nothing in art appears less spontaneously than that." This show is a perfect illustration.

Jeff Wall, Marian Goodman Gallery, September 22-October 30, 2009