Magazine article Artforum International

Portfolio: Jeff Wall

Magazine article Artforum International

Portfolio: Jeff Wall

Article excerpt

If the dialectic of artifice and fact has informed Jeff Wall's work from the start, then his latest pictures tip the balance: away from the excruciating feats of stagecraft evidenced in an image like After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Preface, 1999-2001 (which took Wall nearly three years to complete), and toward the documentary, or "near-documentary," impulse that remains the other strong attractor in the photographer's working dynamic. (Two of the four images in this portfolio are, for all practical purposes, "documentary": observed, and then shot in a session or two at most.) Of course, just how much--or little Wall fusses to achieve his ends is something he would rather we not think so hard about. For him, the point is the synthesis, the estranging synthesis. In Wall's recollection of his own artistic self-invention that precedes these pictures ["Frames of Reference," p. 188], we discover that the synthesis he was looking for, "what was needed to make pictures with the kind of physical presence I wanted," came to him (as to others of his generation) at the movies. What was needed, it turns out, were the techniques of filmmaking: collaboration with performers ("not necessarily 'actors,' as Neorealism showed"), sets, lights, makeup, and finally, and especially, the juxtaposition of different "manners and styles" in a single work that, to Wall, seemed to defy the very idea of authorial style. While he acknowledges that such factors are not specific to filmmaking, from the movies came the permission that enabled his first large color photographs.

If Wall was seeing his way back to the masters of the classic documentary model (Atget, Evans, et al.), if he was looking beyond the inhibitions of the neo-avant-gardes that for a "long moment" had foreclosed on that model, as on all past art, the documentary tradition--with its album-leaf miniaturism and plain-truth pieties--was still felt as a limitation. Where Conceptualists like Smithson, Ruscha, and Graham--artists who worked with photography but were not photographers in the old sense appeared for a time to point the way beyond the impasse, the intermedia experiments their efforts begot ("the unconvincing hybrids that are so sadly characteristic of art since then") seemed to Wall a second cul-desac. …

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