Refutation of the Refutation: On Jeff Wall
The tension between the conceptual dissolution of the image and its self-conscious reconstruction as tableau is further developed by other choices of Wall’s and Benzakin’s. Especially notable is the inclusion of divergent approaches to photography. There are conceptualists like Graham and Smithson, as well as Chris Burden, Douglas Huebler and Hans-Peter Feldmann, who used the medium with a kind of indifference. But there are also “classic” straight photographers like Eugène Atget, Walker Evans and Weegee—and their successors, such as Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Stephen Shore—who were fascinated with photography as a medium in its own right. At first, Wall’s photographs were regarded as being closer in spirit to conceptualism because of their evident constructedness, a denial of spontaneity that created a sense of mental distance from their ostensible subjects, as if they were diagrams disguised as pictures rather than true pictures. But Wall’s emphasis on the autonomous image distinguishes his work from conceptualism and classic photography, in which images were typically subsumed into a photo-essay in a magazine, a book or occasionally a grander overarching sequence, like August Sander’s life project “People of the Twentieth Century.” They were not primarily meant to be seen as isolated images on a wall.
Wall’s somewhat younger German contemporaries, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky, whose works appear in “The Crooked Path,” were all students of the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. The Bechers’ gridded arrangements of photographs illustrating building typologies (coal bunkers, coke ovens, cooling towers) might be the ideal meeting point of conceptual and documentary photography. But while the students adopted the Bechers’ deadpan eye, they ditched their typologies and, like Wall, went for color and big scale. Even Ruff—whose portraits from the 1980s, often compared to gigantic passport photos, insistently present his subjects as “types”—uses intense detail to show each quasi-anonymous person as a sort of self-contained alien landscape. In so doing he places the emphasis firmly on the individual image, if not the individual person. “In the light of these artists,” Wall says in the catalog, “the Bechers appear to be the last in a lineage,” crowning but also exhausting two traditions that subordinate the image to the system of images. (I would argue that the Internet has turned the tables once again and created a new opening for the subsuming of the image to system—but that’s another story.)
Among the other works in “The Crooked Path” are several by the American minimalists of the 1960s, their presence ostensibly meant to show their influence on Wall’s use of scale (though one shouldn’t forget that the fluorescent tubes Dan Flavin used for his sculpture are cousins to those illuminating Wall’s transparencies). A film program includes such auteurs as Robert Bresson, Jean Eustache and Terrence Malick; there are displays with original editions of literary works Wall has used as sources (Franz Kafka’s “The Cares of a Family Man,” Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) and those that have had more indirect influence on his work (André Breton’s Nadja; Documents, the magazine edited by Georges Bataille in 1929–30). Finally, there are works by a few of the younger artists Wall keeps an eye on, including some interesting painters (Luc Tuymans, Kai Althoff, Kerry James Marshall). Their inclusion might be an inadvertent reminder of the marginal place of painting in the show (otherwise there are just a couple of early Frank Stellas in the section on minimalism).
The relative paucity of painting is surprising because Wall’s photographs are full of allusions to its history and because, despite his love of classic photography and cinema and his fascination with conceptual art, the lineage he wants his art to be measured against is the European painting tradition from the Renaissance to the beginnings of Modernism (in the work of Manet). What he says of Marshall is clearly meant to apply to his own efforts: “If he’s involved in what you might call a ‘refutation of the refutation’ of the pictorial tradition, that suggests that what he’s doing is not simply a continuation of that tradition, but a new relation with both the tradition and the critique of the tradition.”
Naturally, it would not have been possible for the Bozar to borrow touchstones of the tradition like The Death of Sardanapalus or A Bar at the Folies-Bergère for an exhibition like this. And even if it had, their glorious presence might have upset the balance: Wall might no longer have been the focus of the exhibition, only its occasion. Although his works are greatly outnumbered in the show, thanks to their scale they still dominate; a dozen black-and-white photographs from the early twentieth century can be arranged on a wall that just one of Wall’s pieces would occupy. Besides, his connections with painting from before the twentieth century have already been much commented on—too much so, according to Stallabrass, for whom “making art-historical references is one of the most reliable tactics to get a work discussed as if it is art.” Apparently Stallabrass does not accept that artists become artists because they love art, because they want to steep themselves in it, and that the most natural thing in the world for them is to take the art they know as a reference point. For him, art that remembers the work of many masters is merely “a form of social display…indelibly marked with the inequalities of class, education and the opportunity for cultured leisure.” That these references are to painting, not to photography, is worse still in his eyes: Wall is somehow traducing his medium through a confected relation to one considered more prestigious.
But Wall came to photography through art, not to art through photography. Is it strange that his long view of art’s development does not begin with the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century? Although Stallabrass is a photographer as well as an art historian (and, like Wall, a product of the Courtauld Institute, where he teaches), one could almost imagine that he has had no contact with living artists or the process of art-making, imagining it only as a thing of use—either in the good cause of political agitation or the bad one of careerist self-advancement. For him art can only be radical sociology or a calling card.
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Though Stallabrass sometimes pushes his argument so far that it would be impossible for any artist working within the art world to satisfy its conditions, the question remains: Is Wall’s an art in decline? Has it sacrificed life-giving conflict for an insipid harmony? Stallabrass is not the only critic to think so. David Campany has recently published a book-length analysis of one of Wall’s most famous early works, Picture for Women (1979), which concludes with the damning observation that ever since Wall made that image, his art “has grown more likeable than admirable.” Peter Osborne sees Wall as having sold his birthright—an art “distinctively ‘Post-Conceptual’ in its combination of a medium-based practice with a strategic conceptual content”—for a formalist pottage. Why? Something snapped, writes Osborne; it seems that Wall grew tired of thinking so hard.
The source of Osborne’s remarks, by the way, is his contribution to the catalog for “The Crooked Path”—the only catalog I’ve ever seen that admits severely critical views alongside the usual encomiums. This alone makes me wonder whether it can be claimed that Wall has lost all taste for conflict. Besides, Eviction Struggle and An Eviction, the pair of works that Stallabrass presents as crucial pieces of evidence, might not be entirely indicative of Wall’s career (they are not at the Bozar). Wall’s earlier pieces may not be quite as conflict-laden as they appear, or anyway not in quite the way they seem. The Destroyed Room shows what looks to be the aftermath of some catastrophe, not the action that caused it, and it underlines its own artificiality: one cannot but be conscious of it as a staged emblem of ruin rather than a record of the real thing. The photograph Milk (1984) shows a young guy with greasy hair and stubble squatting on the sidewalk; in one hand he holds a milk carton in a brown paper bag, its contents exploding in a rather spectacular stop-action splash in the manner of Harold Edgerton. It is easy to see Milk as an evocation of the homelessness and addiction endemic to Vancouver—but then shouldn’t it be a pint of whiskey, or at least Mad Dog 20/20, in that paper bag? Wall seems to be playing a joke on the viewer’s sociological eye.
In what might be the best of Wall’s earlier works, The Storyteller (1986), some men and women, evidently First Nations people, are hanging out on a patch of scruffy terrain adjacent to an overpass. Wall’s mastery of scale comes into its own here—the landscape, though hemmed in by a stand of trees on one side and the highway on the other, seems vast, yet it does not overwhelm the figures in it, however small they are in relation to the rectangle that contains them. Three figures sit around a small fire in the left foreground. One, presumably the eponymous storyteller, gestures animatedly; two others loll farther back near the trees; one sits separate, far off to the right, on the pavement under the overpass. Why are they taking their leisure here, of all places? Can it be that of a whole continent that was once the home of their ancestors, this narrow and inhospitable strip of land is the only place left for them to relax? Yet the image’s gently ironic pastoral overtones—the slight echoes of Seurat, even of Matisse (the pose of the solitary figure on the right recalls that of a figure in his 1910 painting Music)—have their place. Despite everything, these people have their storyteller and their story, and though we might not hear either one, both survive within their dispossession.
The Storyteller is the kind of image that Thierry de Duve once called dialectical. The same can be said of Wall’s most recent pictures, no longer mounted on light boxes but still made mostly on his accustomed grand scale. If they aren’t quite as poignant for me as some of his older works, I suspect that’s mostly because I have had more time to think about the earlier pieces, to let their colors, allusions and oblique imagery seep in. When I first saw those works they left me feeling a little flat and quizzical, just as the recent ones do. They weren’t quite answering my questions of them because they were inciting me to new questions I didn’t know how to pose, and the same may be true of Wall’s new pieces.
The most immediately arresting of them is Dressing Poultry (2007), which shows four workers in an industrial shed doing just what the title says. The woman in the foreground is laughing as she does her job; apparently someone has just cracked a joke. As Stallabrass says, “the scene is almost a cheery one”—which for him is suspect. Apparently, the workplace should be represented only in the form of a trenchant exposé. I don’t see it that way. There is a place in art for muckraking, but there’s more to art and life (even under neoliberal capitalism) than that. I once worked in a place not too different from that shed, and what I remember about it is how my co-workers and I got through our day by singing Beatles songs. It’s because work can be oppressive that part of the heroism of daily life is learning to make the best of it, to take it lightly. Dressing Poultry draws its thoughtfulness and power from the way it depicts this quotidian struggle. It means a lot to me that Wall, while being unlike most other people in his capacity to control his own work, can still make art that meaningfully evokes a day in the life.