Conjured realities on boxes of light: Vancouver artist Jeff Wall retrospective fascinates at SFMOMA

  • by Michael Wood, BAR Contributor
  • Friday November 9, 2007
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Canadian artist Jeff Wall takes exception when his photographs are described as staged; instead, he prefers to call them reconstructions - of events, memories and flashes of imagination. Through his signature medium, large color transparencies encased in light-boxes - the images are pressed against glass, and back-lit by fluorescent tubes - he achieves a heightened, theatrical, albeit selective reality infused with brilliant light and fantasy. Anyone who has traveled abroad will recognize this format, which is often used in advertising, though Wall's aims are purely artistic. Forty-one of his color photographs, as well as four black-and-white gelatin prints, about a quarter of his total output, is on view at SFMOMA in a handsomely displayed retrospective that covers 30 years of his work, beginning in the 1970s.

Wall may utilize some of the tools and techniques of documentary photography, but he's not bound by the same restrictions or ethical obligations. Nor is he dependent on the recording of real-life events for content. He likes to cherry-pick reality, rearranging and tailoring it to suit his sensibility and concepts. He's a master of his own universe, if you will. His work has a kinship with painting and cinema in the sense that he builds and layers his photographs; they evolve as painting does with each brushstroke, or a film does with the addition of a new frame. In this way, he leaves room for the accidental and the unexpected to intervene.

Although his pictures are constructed incrementally, they're not static. The action occurs in the blink of an eye, the split-second opening and closing of the camera shutter. In "A Ventriloquist at a Birthday Party in October 1947," the world comes to a halt while a group of children pay rapt attention to a ventriloquist at the center of a living room crowded with toys, half-filled glasses of soda and candy. One senses that a fraction of a moment later, the scene could erupt into noisy chaos.

"Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986)" has its origins in a seminal idea that's somewhere between a dream and a fictional scenario. The artist asked, what would happen if the dead could talk, and those dead people were soldiers in a war? The answer to that question unfolds in a battlefront arena where wounded Soviet soldiers, slumped and bloody in a sandy quarry, awake suddenly without realizing they're already dead. This piece recalls the surreal, faux documentary style of British-based film director Richard Lester.

Wall seems to be partial to scenes of cleaning and clean-up areas, with rusting canisters, peeling paint, textured surfaces mutating due to their reaction to corrosive chemicals and sunlight, deteriorating work-benches or aging school-desks, including one with a lonely octopus beached on top.

He built and then deconstructed "The Destroyed Room," a custom-made space that has torn walls, overturned furniture, a mattress with its stuffing coming out, shoes and clothing tossed hither and yon, all strategically positioned by Wall. It represents a form of engineered chaos that reappears in other works such as "After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue," Wall's rumination on and vision of the novel, which has the madness, disarray and logic of a fever dream, or a film by Terry Gilliam. Here, an African American man, dressed in an undershirt and suspenders, is seated in a back room or a messy studio apartment, polishing a headlight lamp. Thousands of lightbulbs hang from the ceiling, dishes are piled in the sink, open boxes and papers are strewn about. Someone please call housekeeping!

For the most part, the photographs are processed the old-fashioned way, in huge vats of chemicals at Wall's Vancouver darkroom, where he employs slowly unfolding, 1970s-era technologies. The lone digitally generated image in the show, "After 'Spring Snow' by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34," is a smaller work whose sepia tones shroud a woman seated on a bed in mystery.

Wall spent days hidden in a truck with a telephoto lens snapping pictures of random party people for "In front of a nightclub," from which he cast his own nightclub street scene, inadvertently choosing a few of the same people he had photographed there earlier. A striking woman, balanced on copper-metallic high heels, stands out of the crowd.

Several very large, moody black-and-white prints, which occupy their own gallery and are not in light-boxes, have a nourish quality, especially "Passerby," in which a man, possibly an intruder, stands suspiciously in stark half-light and shadow outside a residential building. Is he a character out of film noir, or a figment of Wall's imagination?

Jeff Wall retrospective at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., SF, through January 27, 2008. For information, visit or call (415) 357-4000

Michael Wood is a contributor and Editorial Assistant for EDGE Publications.