05
Mar
13

Review: ‘Jeff Wall Photographs’ at The Ian Potter Centre: NGVA, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 30th November 2012 - 17th March 2013

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“My work is a reconstruction and reconstruction is a philosophical activity. If I can create a drama that has philosophical meaning, that’s fine, or sometimes, it is not from meaning but a reconstruction of a feeling. It is best to capture in a photograph a feeling, an emotion, a look, a memory, a perception or a relationship.”

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Jeff Wall

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Stressed at the seams

The excruciating “conversation” between Jeff Wall and Thomas Demand in The Great Hall at the National Gallery of Victoria on November 28th 2012 seemed to run on interminably, yielding a couple of tiny gems but also a lot of leaden debate. I had higher hopes of the solo exhibition by Jeff Wall at NGV Australia. In some ways I was not disappointed, in other ways Wall’s calculating fields of existence certainly didn’t move my soul with any great conviction.

Initially, I was impressed perhaps even a little overwhelmed by the spacious hang, the placement of the mainly large, light box illuminated photographs and non light box photographs dotted amongst the galleries emphasising the inter-relationship between the images. The work in the exhibition includes large set-piece constructions, outdoor photographs of found environments, small, intimate conceptual works full of angles and colour and more recent ink jet print work. These “installations that happen to have photos in them” (Wall’s description) reflect the gigantism prevalent in much contemporary photography. In these large mise-en-scène you cannot fail to be impressed by the control the artist displays in the formal nature of their construction, the still-life tableaux representing the artist’s intention in a rather cold and remote way. As can be seen from the structural analysis of Polishing (1988) by Dr James McArdle and J.S.B. below, Wall is very clever in how he structures his shape-shifting photographs, how he seduces the eye into believing that everything is plausible within the formalist pictorial plane. But as McArdle observes,

“[His] formalism remains empty of connection to the subject, Wall denying any narrative representation… His distancing of the subject, his leaning on typecast (such as in the chicken plucking image) can be summed up in his method: staging, directing, controlling that sucks the real life out of the imagery and re-inflates it with bombast.”1

From his early, prissy double self-portrait to his laughing at, not with, the menial labourers in Dressing poultry (2007, below), the set-piece work does seem full of bombast (possessing a pompous and grandiloquent language; an obsolete material used for padding), but perhaps bombast is related to that standard postmodern language, irony. It certainly is a language where Wall denies any inherent narrative, where there is a “dis-identification of the figures in the pictures which becomes part of the aesthetic of the picture.”2 Wall says he is just depicting the figures, that they just become an effect of depiction (or representation, in other words). In this way Wall conditions our awareness of [this particular] space due only in part to their scale (McArdle). This grandiloquence, coupled with the luminance of the light box which creates the luminescence of the image, dazzles the eye but on closer inspection is a perhaps a psychological hall of mirrors. The shattering of this constructed illusion can be seen in the “seaminess” of the photographs. The media image of A view from an apartment (2004-05, below) gives it away: all trace of the join that is present in most of Wall’s large transparencies has been removed, when compared to my detail photograph of the image in the actual exhibition. The join gives lie, line, to the truth that here are photographs that we can believe in. The illusion becomes stressed at the seams but again, perhaps this join is just a trope that Wall has developed to compliment his visual language. Certainly, there is no reason why such large transparencies could not be printed in one piece and at a million dollars a pop he could surely talk to the manufacturer.

Scholars have noted that the phrase ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ has become a standard metaphor for anything that smacks of pretentiousness, pomposity, social hypocrisy, or hollow ostentatiousness and this is the case here. These photographs are like the Emperor’s new clothes, so caught up are we in the brilliance of their display we fail to notice that there is not much going on in terms of the actual “life” of the image (other than subsuming the life of up to 70 digital images to make one still, cold image). Wall’s photographs as performance, his theatre of disruption where the artist seeks to upset the veneer of the ordinary to blur the boundaries between what is probable or improbable, are undone by their existential isolation. I felt little empathy for any of the people in Wall’s tableaux vivants or for their imagined, non-narrative realities as Wall would have it. Perhaps I wasn’t meant to or, to be kinder, perhaps this is the strategy.

There was one exception: Untangling (1994, below) which is a cracker of an image. All the psychological and existential meaning comes pouring out here: an underground cave (Jung’s cave archetype, symbol of the unconscious), the male sitters profound mood of introspection, the skein of tangled rope which may represent the source of the Gordian Knot, used as a metaphor for an intractable problem (disentangling an “impossible” knot) – although I prefer the analogy of the Ouroboros, the snake devouring its own tail which often represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, which emphasises the relationship between a person’s mind and their experience of reality, how the psyche shapes the environment in which they act, and the untangling of consciousness.

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While his work was cutting edge in the late 1980s – 1990s, containing something in the work that brought him to notice, today it evidences a cultural and visual aesthetic that already seems completely outdated (the Pet Shop Boys on a bad hair day). Through staring at a constructed atemporal reality – like a man dreaming, caught in a no-time – Wall has created a form of look but don’t touch voyeurism, a slightly bombastic narcissism based on the photographers’ own power. But perhaps this is the point. Perhaps the qualities that I have criticized in the artist’s work are the very qualities the he is pursuing. Wall might want a don’t touch voyeurism for example – possibly deny it even exists or give it another name – so that the work interrogates some aspect of alienation without ever naming it. This can be seen in his construction of the photograph Polishing where he represents a mundane act in a cheap hotel room, raising the performance up to the altar of high art while hiding its anomalous philosophical and physical distortions.

I think Wall is a clever person wanting to be contradictory and clever.

To some people the qualities evidenced in Wall’s photographs can be seen to be quite admirable: today we shouldn’t (always) have to seek resolution or meaning. But when Wall says in the quote at the top of this posting that his work is a “reconstruction of a feeling” then I wonder where this feeling has gone, or whether it existed in the first place, for reconstruction is a very strange word to use with regard to feelings.

While the artist can control the uniqueness of a particular image seen from the point of view of production, intention and encounter3 what he cannot control is the interpretation of his images by the viewer. With this in mind (very apt) this is what I don’t get from these images: they lack for me is the quality of being lyrical, an artist’s expression of emotion in an imaginative and beautiful way. The stress seams present in his photographs, be they physical (the actual print) or psychological (photographs like Doorpusher or A view from an apartment) don’t allow me emotional access to the work. Aiming for an investigation into the existential nature of being and the philosophical reconstruction of a feeling, Wall ends up stressed at the seams (even un/seamed, un/scene, un/seen) and leaves me spatially and emotionally unmoved.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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Many thankx to the National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946- 'A view from an apartment' 2004-05

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946-
A view from an apartment
2004-05
Transparency in light box 1/2
167.0 x 244.0 cm
Tate, London Purchased with assistance from the American Fund for the Tate Gallery and Tate Members, 2006
© Jeff Wall

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946- 'A view from an apartment' 2004-05 (detail)

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946-
A view from an apartment (detail)
2004-05
Photograph: Marcus Bunyan

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946- 'Polishing' 1998

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946-
Polishing
1998
Transparency in light box, 1/2
162.0 x 207.0 cm State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia Purchased with assistance from the Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation, 1999
© Jeff Wall

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Jeff Wall 'Polishing' skewing

Image Dr James McArdle

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Jeff Wall 'Polishing' skewing

Image J.S.B.

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Structural analysis of Jeff Wall’s Polishing (1998)

“There is a perceptual discomfort in viewing this image on the wall that is not apparent in the desk-top experience of it. I’m referring to a weird skewing of the perspective of the room. Wall has tilted the monorail of his 8×10 camera down toward the corner of the room, making the left hand wall of the bathroom lean uncomfortably, more than does the patched join of the wall panels to the right. He has then shifted the lens left, thus positioning the one vertical (right behind the figure) to the right of centre. The bathroom door, draped with a towel, looks as if it is hanging off its hinges, at variance with the top of the entrance door which remains horizontal. Conventionally, an architectural photographer would square everything and Wall does that in Doorpusher which though shot from an extremely oblique angle employs a radical drop-front to correct the verticals.”

Dr James McArdle

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“”Firstly, the floor is not straight in the image. You can see how in my edit, I have rotated the image a little to make the floor straight: (you can see how much by the break in the picture rail see red arrow). JW being tricky and skilled. Now the amount of lean in wall could almost be achieved just by a camera pointing down. No weird camera movements – this is almost familiar. But the door leans more than the wall! Next, note the degree of convergence in blue lines compared to green lines. Therefore the blue angle is emphasized – somehow. Note different hang of towel in magenta compared to blue – therefore edited ~ somehow!

The grid is good because as an initial observation it shows how much distortion we are viewing. But it makes it difficult to see that the floor is not level. When the floor is straightened the lean on the left wall is not as much as it seemed. Wait! Things do splay out when the camera is pointed down – so maybe there is no Photoshop in this at all? But there is – the angles have been emphasised a bit (I believe digitally) and there are puns in the angle of the towel (sloping at a different angle) and the buttons on the couch (not sloping out at all).

Lets play with this a bit more. So just tilt the camera to slope the floor and emphasise the lean by using the tilt to straighten the verticals on one side - and now make this a bit stronger in Photoshop. And by judicious use of the furniture placement the slope of the floor can be partly hidden. I can imagine Jeff Wall saying to a crowd that there is no Photoshop in this – it’s just camera placement (including a tilt in the whole camera) and without duplicating the scene I can’t be sure – but I think he has stressed in Photoshop some things that are already there. Digital enhancement.

Finally we can say that the formal qualities of this image are a play upon what has been initially offered by the camera. Initially: The walls are sloping! So is it just optics, or camera angle or Photoshop? It’s all three but not as much Photoshop as initially thought. The floor is not straight, the camera angle has been changed and there has been some digital emphasis.”

J.S.B. (author of The Well Tempered View Camera)

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Many thankx to Dr James McArdle for the initial gridded image from the posting “Perspective blow up,” on his Camera/Eye blog (January 21st, 2013) where he argues that the skewing is all done with tilting and shifting of an 8 x 10 image view camera to the analysis by J.S.B in which he argues that the skewing is partially done through the architecture (the set), the camera and some Photoshop tweeking.

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946- 'Double Self-Portrait' 1979

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946-
Double Self-Portrait
1979
Transparency in light box AP
172.0 x 229.0 cm
Collection of the artist
© Jeff Wall

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946- 'Untangling' 1994, printed 2006

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946-
Untangling
1994, printed 2006
Transparency in light box, AP
189.0 x 223.5 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased NGV Foundation and with the assistance of NGV Contemporary, 2006
© Jeff Wall

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946- 'Dressing poultry' 2007

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946-
Dressing poultry
2007
Transparency in light box, 1/2
201.5 x 252.0 cm
Cranford Collection, London
© Jeff Wall

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946- 'Adrian Walker, artist, drawing from a specimen in a laboratory in the Dept. of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver' 1992

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946-
Adrian Walker, artist, drawing from a specimen in a laboratory in the Dept. of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver
1992
Transparency in light box, AP
119.0 x 164.0 cm
Collection of the artist
© Jeff Wall

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946- 'A sudden gust of wind (after Hokusai)' 1993

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946-
A sudden gust of wind (after Hokusai)
1993
Transparency in light box, unique state
229.0 x 377.0 cm
Tate, London Purchased with the assistance from the Patrons of New Art through the Tate Gallery Foundation and from the National Art Collections Fund, 1995
© Jeff Wall

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946- 'After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue' 1999-2000

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946-
After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue
1999-2000
Transparency in light box, AP
174.0 x 250.5 cm
Collection of the artist
© Jeff Wall

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946- 'Knife throw' 2008

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946-
Knife throw
2008
Colour photograph, AP
184.0 x 256.0 cm
Collection of the artist
© Jeff Wall

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946- 'The Destroyed Room' 1978

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946-
The Destroyed Room
1978
Transparency in light box, AP
159.0 x 234.0 cm
Collection of the artist
© Jeff Wall

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946- 'Clipped branches, East Cordova St., Vancouver' 1999

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946-
Clipped branches, East Cordova St., Vancouver
1999
Transparency in light box, AP
72.0 x 89.0 cm
Collection of the artist
© Jeff Wall

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946- 'Diagonal Composition' 1993

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Jeff Wall Canadian 1946-
Diagonal Composition
1993
Transparency in light box, AP
40.0 x 46.0 cm
Collection of the artist
© Jeff Wall

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1. McArdle, James. Email to the author 22-01-2013

2. Wall, Jeff and Crombie, Isobel. “Jeff Wall Photographs: Knife Throw,” video on ArtDaily.org [Online] Cited 03-03-2013

3. Howarth, Sophie. “Introduction,” in Singular Images: essays on Remarkable Photographs. New York: Aperture, 2006, p.7.

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The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Federation Square
Corner of Russell and 
Flinders Streets, Melbourne

Opening hours:
10am – 5pm
Closed Mondays

National Gallery of Victoria website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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