While there is little question that photography is the central medium in Jeff Wall's arresting works, one would hardly consider him a photographer. For one thing, he makes use of certain strategies that derive from cinema, so that he describes his typical works explicitly as cinematographic, rather than documentary, photographs. For another, though the characters, as we may call the men and women he photographs, clearly belong to the same world his viewers do, their formal relationships to one another seem based on conventions of painting, especially nineteenth-century French painting. It is as if twenty-first-century men and women, wearing jeans and T-shirts and living in twenty-first-century rooms, are enacting, in tableaux vivants, scenes as they might have been composed by Degas or Manet. Wall, whose traveling retrospective was recently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is an art historian as well as an artist, who has been a painter, a photographer and a filmmaker. He is also steeped in contemporary theory, though it is not necessary either to know his history or to interpret his works in light of the theories that underpin them. Still, one cannot penetrate very deeply into an exhibition of his work without realizing that some more complex aesthetics are involved than apply to the separate media he brings together in constructing his images. In this respect, his art is very much of the present moment, not only in subject but in mode of representation.
Let's consider the first work in the show (which reopens at the Art Institute of Chicago at the end of June), The Destroyed Room, roughly the size of a small billboard, and done in 1978. As a cinematographic photograph, it is intended to imply an interpretive narrative, by contrast with a "documentary photograph," which records an independent reality. The room itself is entirely banal, in décor as well as cheap furniture--a chest of drawers, a bed and a bamboo table or chair. There is no ornamentation--no moldings, for example--and the walls are painted in the kind of color a paint manufacturer might call "fiesta red." But the door is off its hinges, the curtain rods hang diagonally across the single square window. The floor is strewn with costume jewelry as well as shoes and garments that are clearly feminine. There are no "personal touches" like pictures or posters on the wall, apart from the figurine of a female dancer on the bureau, left undisturbed. The person symbolically expressed by the room is feminine, and the destruction is definitely the symbolic expression of a very different self, who has committed an act of aggression against the room's tenant. It is not the outcome of a natural disaster, like an earthquake or a hurricane. The drawers have been pulled out, the mattress has been slashed, the garments have been flung, the bamboo chair or table has been smashed. The room has either been searched by spies or police who wanted the returning tenant to know that they had been there--or destroyed in an act of rage or frustration by an angry lover.
All these conjectures have to be put in parentheses when we realize that the photograph does not document an actual episode. It is a theater or, more likely, a movie set, fabricated to represent a scene of violent disarray. It is filled with signs of deliberate artificiality; indeed, artificiality is part of the work's content. The Destroyed Room may look like a forensic shot, but in fact it merely mimics one. One quickly realizes that the artist has brought together various articles from daily life and composed them deliberately to look like the result of willed mayhem. It is a "destroyed room" only insofar as it makes us believe it is one. It tells the kind of story that a movie would tell. It mocks the somewhat discredited genre of "staged photography."
Staged photography grew out of the polemical dialogue between photography and painting that continued well into our time. In 1839 the painter Paul Delaroche, learning that Louis Daguerre had invented a way of preserving photographic images on metal plates, declared that painting was dead. What was the point of learning manually to copy reality through drawing or painting when a perfect reproduction could now be achieved by mechanical means that anyone could master? Defending their suddenly embattled medium, painters replied that photographs could only reproduce the world passively, whereas paintings are uniquely able to show invented scenes and sights, through acts of creative imagination. Before long, however, photographers proved that they too could show imaginary events. The Victorian photographer Henry Peach Robinson used human models to enact sentimental scenes that he then photographed to create salon-type images in such cloying works as Fading Away, in which a young girl is shown dying in the presence of grieving family members. Robinson ought, Wall argues, to have used the best paintings of his day--by Degas, for example--instead of the "salon trash" he actually travestied. Film showed a way in which staged photography could be revived that would enable the photographer to create his or her own "perfect moment" instead of stalking the world in the hope that such a moment would materialize. Wall describes the quest that led to The Destroyed Room in an interview with James Rondeau included in the exhibition catalogue:
I had the feeling that it was possible to bring much of what I'd liked in the cinema of the 1960s and 1970s together with what I'd always liked about painting in a form of photography that, whatever faults it might have, would not start out accepting the existing canon. That was an intuition born out of seven or eight years of struggle, intellectual, emotional, artistic struggle, when I couldn't find my own way and went through periods of real desperation.
I'd like to stress how decisively against the grain of Clement Greenberg's characterization of the Modernist agenda this is. Greenberg contended that each of the arts should protect the boundaries of its medium, and exclude anything that belonged by rights to a different medium. Wall violated the boundaries of several different media (painting, photography and cinema) and even went back into the early Modernist painting of the nineteenth century--in order to find what he needed to address the subjects that concerned him. It is this, in my view, that makes him, along with William Kentridge, one of the paradigmatic artists of our age.
There is one further component in Wall's fusion of heterogeneous media. It consists in a borrowing from commercial display art the kind of photograph we know from the glass-enclosed posters mounted on the sides of bus shelters. This recommended itself to him for two reasons--size and luminosity. The medium that enabled him to realize the large photographic works that define his vision is the color transparency, illuminated from behind by fluorescent bulbs. The translucency inherent in the nature of slide film enabled Wall to achieve a luminosity the old masters could only dream of.