Jeff Wall: Below the bourgeois radar

Jeff Wall
photo by Jeff Wall (Canadian, born 1946)
After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue, 2001
Silver dye bleach transparency in light box
5 ft. 8 1/2 in. x 8ft. 2 3/4 in. (174 x 250.8 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photography Council Fund, Horace W. Goldsmith Fund through Robert B. Menschel, and acquired through the generosity of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder and Carol and David Appel
© 2007 Jeff Wall

Yes on Jeff Wall. Yes, yes, yes.

We stopped at MoMA yesterday before we headed to Chelsea for our main event, the opening of super-duper Pop Art by Roslyn Drexler at Pace Wildenstein in Chelsea (my first NY art opening ever). The big news there was the number of paintings on reserve!

But first we looked at Wall’s retrospective at MoMA. I won’t say all I have to say. But what says it all is the 40 photos kept us talking and looking with enthusiasm for about two hours, and we blabbed and bubbled our way through the exhibit.

Jeff Wall
photo by Jeff Wall (Canadian, born 1946)
Volunteer, 1996
Gelatin silver print
87 3/16 x 123 1/4″ (221.5 x 313 cm)
Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, on permanent loan to the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung,
© 2006 Jeff Wall

I was especially interested in the netherworlds Wall often creates–below the street level down alleys and river channels, in graves and under expressway ramps. These are not safe places, but they are life forms existing below the bourgeois radar, whether it be human life or crustacean life.

We can’t quite nail down the narratives. In each case, the photographer is an unreliable narrator and we, the lookers, are slipping on some slope of gradations of truth.

Jeff Wall
In this image, the woman on the left and the man on the right are covered in tattoos. The central figure, posed like an odalisque, has only the reticulation of shadows from the leaves on her arms. She may be the snake, she may be the apple or she just may be from a different social class. It’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe, but the imagery suggests trailor trash, as supposed to the well-heeled dandies of Manet. And this is no Eden, given the sorry state of the greenery.

Foliage takes on a life of its own in Wall’s work, suggesting Henri Rousseau’s preternatural jungles and Edward Scissorhands. The why and wherefore of the plant life, its limits, its overgrown qualities seep across the photos. Trees are trimmed to ridiculous perfection next to a messy human drama, while other humans behind the trees peer out. A Garden of Eden scene (above) has scrubby, unkempt plants. An archaeologist digs in the forest primeval, his gridded square holes and invasion into the past and the present. Plants become a symbol for class and values and invisible lines of society.

There’s lots to see in a Wall photograph, justifying the shocking, enormous size. I thought this was a terrific show from this Vancouver-based artist. It’s worth a trip to New York.