Image above: © Jeff Wall, Daybreak, 2011, Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery.
Images above: ©Alexandra Bendek, The Artist to the right
In Daybreak, one of the pieces from Jeff Wall’s new exhibit at Marian Goodman Gallery, a group of human figures lay down as dawn breaks over the desert. The figures are somewhere between foreground and background, and only their colorful blankets distinguish them from the rocks and bushes, the grey sand, and the featureless, grey-blue sky that blankets nearly half the image. Wall tends to be situated polar opposite street/ documentary photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson; considered, in some ways, a rebut to this tradition. Yet isn’t there a sense of HCB’s decisive moment in Daybreak? Didn’t Wall have to wait, patiently, to catch this moment when the nearing sun, still beneath the horizon, casts the scene softly in morning light?
Image above: © Jeff Wall, Property Line, 2014 / Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery.
Street photographers responded to painting, and the conventions of portraiture and still life, by carving out space for an art that only the camera can capture: living scenes caught without the artist’s hand. Wall constructs his scenes from memory, like a painter, rather than catching them as they appear. Doing so, he carved out another space between the two mediums, for a kind of image that’s neither documentary photography nor realist painting. Like Lange, Evans, Frank, et al, Wall wants to translate modern life into photographic evidence, but to do so with the aesthetic control of painting. This begets a certain arrested tension of opposing forces in Wall’s work: painterly deliberateness and photographic chance; distance-control and intimacy-spontaneity; and grounded ambiguity.
Image above: ©Alexandra Bendek
Wall’s works can often be dense with aesthetic and thematic ideas, and references to literature and art history, but they also have the light immediacy of a snapshot, and the resonant open-endedness of memory. Beauty effects itself through ambiguity. When an artist’s idea or POV is too readily grasped, the work loses all lasting effect– gets digested, rather than stuck in the gut. Wall is clearly concerned with longevity, saying, “Most photographs cannot get looked at very often. They get exhausted.” A scene like Listener– in which a shirtless man kneels, exhausted and desperate, before a group of other men–has all the kinetic momentum of narrative, without much in the way of context or resolution: What happened to him? Is the approaching figure bending to help or antagonize? Who is listening and who’s being listened to? The ambiguity is deliberate: an image is memorable when it never quite resolves itself to being understood.
Image above: © Jeff Wall, Listener, 2015 / Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery.
In Property Line, two surveyors are marking the boundary for a desert property. As with the sleepers’ blankets in Daybreak, only the surveyor’s neon vests save them from being swallowed into the landscape they divide. Like Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Wall invests little focus into the piece’s central subject, denying it importance. This act, signifying a history of humanity imposing dominion onto the land, is belittled by the vastness of the landscape, the distance of Wall’s lens. Partly due to his technique, Wall’s perspective on these scenes is often distant, like an alien observing with detached curiosity the ways we divide ourselves–with borders, bedroom walls, masks–while at the same time, desiring intimacy, we look, we listen, and we approach.
Image above: ©Alexandra Bendek
This exhibition will run at Marian Goodman Gallery in London and New York from late October through December 2015.