Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Two Books on Jeff Wall from MoMA

When Jeff Wall resumed making art in 1977 after several years studying art history, one of his thoughts was to try to bring photography into the realm of respectability that painting and other arts have occupied.

“Most photographs cannot get looked at very often, they get exhausted.”

“I don’t like the traditional 8 by 10; they were done that size as displays for prints to run in books. It’s too shrunken, too compressed. When you’re making things to go on the wall, as I do, that seems too small.” “If painting can be that scale and be effective, then a photograph ought to be effective at that size too.”

I have had a love hate relationship with Wall’s work since I had seen ‘Mimic’ in the late 1980’s. After seeing more of his work, I gravitated towards the disturbing realist side which shows average people butting up against the world and their own psyches. I didn’t however like the side of Wall prone to flights into fantasy and allegory with picnicking vampires and dead Soviet troops conversing in a pit of gore. The work I was drawn to seemed to occupy the same psychological space with my earliest interests in art through people like Raymond Pettibon. At twelve or thirteen, Titian and Velasquez described lives that to me might as well have been from Mars, where as Pettibon at least harnessed my angst as a youth.

When I went to art school and started to mature to the possibilities of photography, I noticed aspects of Wall’s work that, for all of their staging and control, seemed off and would bother me like a sore tooth. Why were the toes cut off in several images? Is this me holding onto some idea about the form of the picture that couldn’t be challenged?

Wall is critical of photographers that “want to nail something” or “hit it square on and make it impressive.” Wall has described his desire to “miss the nail and leave it crooked.” Maybe this accounted for those missing toes, I say as the spirit of Garry Winogrand draws back his hand to remind me, “There is no special way that a photograph should look.” Sorry, I just enjoy seeing the continuation of the unbroken roundness of the toe of a shoe when it is so close to being complete.

On a similar note, one fascinating aspect is his references to wanting to be a street photographer but “without the hunt.” In fact, the only other photograph that graced the slide screen during a lecture I saw him do last year was one of Garry Winogrand’s crowded frames and an unpublished, obscure one to boot. Mr. Wall had spoken about how he employed people for weeks at a time and photographed them within his scenarios. He would let them find their way with limited direction. But after knowing how painstakingly detailed his post production process is I started to automatically think of one of my favorite images of his and many questions arose in me.

There is a fourth person in the photo just in front of the man in the raincoat. Why is the fourth person necessary? What does that person represent? Before I thought it was just a messy handling of a fourth figure. It happens all the time in photography and even in painting. But with the post production control, that element could easily be removed. Is this also an inclusion of an element or flaw to evade perfection and leave it crooked?

It is undeniable that Wall is a very intelligent and learned artist. So erudite that after seeing Mr. Wall lecture about his work at the MoMA, when I went back to see his retrospective show at that same museum, all I saw for weeks were giant medicine cabinets full of art history and theory. Yes…medicine cabinets. Look closely. That black line that splits the image into two. If you pull at that black seam you will see that one panel is capable of sliding behind the other.

When slid back, among the fluorescent tubes (crass commercialism) you see lined up in neat rows hundreds of plastic amber medicine bottles. Looking closely at the labels you will read many names of the prescribers. Andre Breton, Guy Debord, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkeimer, Alfred Hitchcock, Denis Diderot, James Collins, Ernst Bloch, Bertold Brecht, Mikhail Bakhtin, Jacques Lacan (a bottle of Prozac). There seems to be no order that I can discern. There are others marked Neo-avant-garde, Neo-realism, Dada, Old Masters, French Romantic, Constructivist, Minimalist, Surrealist, Conceptual (homeopathic drops).

Pressing and twisting I could not crack them open. Damn child-proof caps.

Luckily, as Peter Galassi points out in his essay from the MoMA exhibition catalog, ‘If it were necessary to match Wall’s erudition in order to understand his pictures, there would be no point in trying – and most of us wouldn’t have a chance anyway.'

Along with the catalog for the show, MoMA has also published Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews should you be interested in all of those little bottles that are just behind the surface of those transparencies.

Admittedly for me several of these essays in this 350+ page book are a bit too dense for me to get through without reaching for my tattered Jansen’s art history book or any number books on art theory, but they are worth deciphering. Essays included in this volume that have become resonant to me are ‘Monochrome and Photojournalism in On Kawara’s Today Paintings’ and ‘Frames of Reference’ which I recommend to anyone who may be interested in photography and how it was adapted by conceptual artists.

The museum also published a handsome catalog to accompany this retrospective. It includes all 41 works that were on display along with a good essay by Peter Galassi. This title was necessary as there was a major traveling exhibition of Wall’s work but as I look at my own bookshelves I question how many books are really necessary for an artist who has only 130 some works to his name. If you cannot afford Steidl’s Jeff Wall: Catalogue RaisonnĂ© that was published last year, this one would be a good starter for anyone who doesn’t have Wall represented on their shelves.

It is well printed; my only complaint comes with my wish that they had gone with a different book designer. The name of Galassi’s essay, ‘Unorthodox,’ should have served as a hint for a departure from the norm. The traditional vertical format that they settled on does not treat the photographs well. That being said, Wall’s use of various frame ratios and scale would be a challenge to any designer as his images need to be large. Much of the detail of his work gets sacrificed in the book form. Besides the size problem, the designer, because of format constraints, has pushed many of the images awkwardly into the gutter. Luckily the book is bound in a manner that allows it to open quite flat.

These are the same problems with all books that try to encapsulate Wall’s work. In the contemporary discussion of some artists being ‘book’ artists and some being ‘wall’ artists, we know where Jeff’s work is best served.

Book Available Here (Jeff Wall MoMA)

Book Available Here (Jeff Wall: Essays and Interviews)