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Jeff Wall @ Marian Goodman, NYC (1)

A. D. Coleman, 2010. Photograph copyright by Willie Chu.

An Exhibition Review by A. D. Coleman and Loring Knoblauch

Back in December, Loring Knoblauch of the blog DLK Collection [renamed Collector Daily in Fall 2013] emailed me an intriguing proposal: that we collaborate on an exhibition review in the form of a conversation, constructed by seeing the same show independently of each other and then exchanging our thoughts about it. He’d pay me a small stipend; we’d share the copyright and usage rights, meaning that the finished dialogue would go up at both our blogs.

Loring suggested that we use the current Jeff Wall show at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York as our testing ground for this experimental interchange. The show opened on December 9, 2011, and will close on January 21st. The gallery has put the show online via jpegs of all the works and some installation shots, which will remain archived there, so if you haven’t seen the show you can at least get some idea of its contents. Loring made his own installation shots, which we’ve included in our postings.

Marian Goodman Gallery logoWe’re both pleased with the outcome, and we’re both interested in what our readers think of this approach. Loring put it up at his site on January 17, with a preamble of his own. For its presentation here at Photocritic International I’m dividing it into two parts; the second half will go up at the end of this week. Instead of Loring’s preamble, I’ve provided my own, as follows — a slightly edited version of the response I sent to his initial invitation.

Dear Loring:

I agree that the direct, considered engagement with a single project — an exhibition, a book, an installation in a public space — is the cornerstone of any serious, long-term critical involvement with a medium.

 New York Observer logoAs you probably know, I’ve moved away from that mode of writing in the past decade. Partly because, quite literally, it didn’t pay once I left the NY Observer and a number of the outlets through which I repurposed my NY Observer reviews, for incremental additional fees, died off. I also think that making the rounds, sifting through the heaps of stuff in the galleries and the mountains of books in search of the few truly worthy of discussion (pro or con), is a younger man’s game. On top of which, sad to say, I find most everything I do see — in the galleries and museums, at portfolio reviews, at photo festivals — “profoundly mediocre,” to quote the late Lee Witkin. So I simply got tired of “stoking the star-maker machinery behind the art photograph,” to paraphrase Joni Mitchell.

Beyond that, on another level, I began to find the form itself stale — or my own activity within it stale. You know your jazz, as I recall. In a documentary film about Miles Davis that I once saw, Herbie Hancock quotes Miles talking about moving away from the classic repertoire of the mid-century modern jazz musician, particularly the glowing renditions Miles used to deliver of ballads by Rodgers & Hart, Lerner & Loewe, and others. “Do you know why I had to stop playing those ballads, Herbie?” he asked. “Because I loved playing them so much.”

I understand what he meant. You can get so good at something — and get so much approval for it — that it becomes a velvet trap. You get to where you can do it in your sleep, and pretty soon you’re sleepwalking through it. Periodically you need to make things hot for yourself by leaving behind your comfort zone, even your skill set, and striking out into the unknown. So I shifted my emphasis to critical reportage, always an aspect of my work but not foregrounded consistently, as it certainly has been since I started my blog in 2009.

With that said, your suggestion of an email back-and-forth dialogue could energize me toward this activity again. I’ve been away from it long enough that maybe it’s refreshed itself; we’ll find out soon enough. So let’s give this a whirl.

Jeff Wall at Marian Goodman Gallery. Installation photo by Loring Knoblauch.

Jeff Wall at Marian Goodman Gallery. Installation photo by Loring Knoblauch.

DLK: My first reaction to this show was very similar to my reaction to Wall’s show from the fall of 2009: it feels sharply uneven. Even more so this time, I think this is a result of Wall going in many artistic directions at once. This isn’t a tight body of work, representative of a particular moment in time, self-contained and complete in its artistic statement. Instead, it is a gathering of pictures that are all traveling down different intellectual paths at different speeds.

There are several large-scale color staged tableaux (perhaps what he is best known for), a large black and white portrait, a pair of landscapes (one in color and one in black and white), a still life (if we can call the grave image a still life), and a group of images that functions as a single unit (surprising for an artist who has so forcefully been a proponent of the individual, stand-alone picture). To my eye, there is a decently wide disparity in these works between those that are successful and those that are less so. Each genre or format seems to present Wall with unique visual challenges which he is dutifully exploring, but the whole doesn’t converge for me toward something I can easily make sense of.

ADC: There is indeed a sense here of someone cleaning out the fridge. The show contains 12 images all told: a four-image sequence and 8 autonomous pieces, two of them in b&w, the others in color. Four of the stand-alone works are typical Wall tableaux vivants: a rock-club scene, a boy falling out of a tree, a lecturer at a museum costume display, two boys boxing in a living room. Then there’s a b&w full-length portrait of a “Young Man Wet with Rain,” the four-image sequence, and three images made in Sicily in 2007 and, according to the gallery, shown here for the first time.

The gallery has segregated the latter (presumably at Wall’s request), presenting them separately in an immediately adjacent space: two landscapes  one in color, one b&w  and a study of a grave and tombstone. Impressive scale aside, these Sicilian pieces are utterly nondescript variants of images made many times before by many others. The gallery’s spin control on this assortment hails Wall’s “hybrid integration of the documentary and the cinematographic, the ‘street’ and the monumental, two directions he has pursued simultaneously, while being partial to neither.” Yet I’m reminded of the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock’s impetuous young nobleman who “rode madly off in all directions.”

Jeff Wall at Marian Goodman Gallery. Installation photo by Loring Knoblauch.

Jeff Wall at Marian Goodman Gallery. Installation photo by Loring Knoblauch.

DLK: That side room was a head scratcher for me as well. While it might be possible to connect these new pictures to some of Wall’s earlier straight landscapes under the umbrella of man’s impact on the land (slightly New Topographics-ish), I agree that the execution here didn’t show much that we haven’t seen before: rocky hillsides and flat sky, punctuated by electric wires.

By hanging them together as a Sicilian suite, there is an implication of a larger narrative, which seems counter to most everything I assume about Wall and his artistic process. The moss-covered tombstone, with its loose brick paving and wires draped over the wall (on the left, at left), has more potential for a richer individual reading, perhaps connecting it to his earlier “The Flooded Grave,” but if the tombstone is to be part of this interconnected threesome, then its meaning as a single picture is given a different, presumably more Sicilian or historical, context. For me, it all arrived with a mystifying thud.

Jeff Wall at Marian Goodman Gallery. Installation photo by Loring Knoblauch.

Jeff Wall at Marian Goodman Gallery. Installation photo by Loring Knoblauch.

The other work which I thought missed the mark was the large black and white full-length portrait (on the right, in the installation shot at the right). Wall’s previous works in black and white have seemed to aim for the margins of life, capturing mundane transitional moments with an inexplicable, understated, almost Hitchcockian drama.

This image, while certainly detailed, didn’t offer enough of a gesture to allow me a way into some kind of narrative. The young man is standing still, dripping. Fair enough, but it certainly didn’t grab me or make me wonder what was going on. Or perhaps that’s the point: a strange kind of edge-of-life nothing is going on?

ADC: Not nearly strange enough, if so. With one exception, which I’ll get to, the dramaturgy fails to persuade me. Everything’s stilted, frozen, like those scenarios I remember from childhood visits to the American Museum of Natural History: mannequin Native Americans and stuffed dogs around a teepee.

Even in the most ostensibly dramatic of these scenes, a boy falling from a tree, just a few feet away from a potentially injurious crash, I didn’t get caught up in the potential tragedy for a second. Instead, I found myself wondering only how Wall had engineered the effect. Not because I’m jaded; I’m not immune to convincing theater. But Wall’s theater doesn’t persuade me to suspend my disbelief. Nor, from a Brechtian standpoint, does it in any provocative way breach the fourth wall. (Pun unintended but unavoidable).

Dogme banner, Cannes Film Festival, 1998.

Dogme banner, Cannes Film Festival, 1998.

And I’m perplexed by the claim to cinematographic concern on Wall’s part, because I don’t know of any cinematographer who uses, or would approve the use of by others, a visual strategy that invariably places the subject front and center in the frame, with no significant use of the edge of the frame, no selective depth of field, no activation of the foreground, no foreground-background relationships . . . it’s a banal and tedious POV, one of the first habits they get you to break in film school. Even the purists at [the Danish film collective] Dogme 95 gave themselves more latitude.

DLK: I agree that I didn’t exactly believe that the boy falling from the tree (on the left, in the top installation shot) would imminently crash into the grass or bounce off the upturned wheelbarrow. But the best of Wall’s staged events do make me wonder about the nature of the reality that he is depicting or that I am seeing secondhand; I know it is an artificial world (at least partially) and yet the fidelity to reality makes me question this intellectual conclusion, at least for a moment. This leaves me trying to unpack what is going on, separating likely fact from likely fiction.

I did find the falling boy a little reminiscent of a stop-motion Muybridge, where a physical gesture is captured photographically that we have never really seen or looked at carefully before. As with “Milk,” I’d say I had a sense of astonished amazement with the technical aspects of the picture, rather than a true engagement with the proposed story.

Jeff Wall at Marian Goodman, website screenshot

I thought both “Boxing” and “Band & Crowd” were successful tableaux in a manner we have generally come to expect from Wall. The boxing image (at right) juxtaposes the quiet control of the brightly lit modern interior with the physicality of the boys’ lunging movement, while the band image has the feeling of multiple, independent vignettes compressed into one frame. I found the first very rigid and composition driven but still lyrical in its own way, while the second drew me more deeply into the small lives of the bored crowd and the earnest band members.

I think the framing of the band image unbalances the natural tendency to focus on the performers, instead giving equal weight to front and back, forcing the viewer to take it all in at one glance and then move across the frame from left to right. I can easily imagine wandering around in the shifting empty space with a beer in my hand, paying only passing attention to the odd gyrations on stage, so Wall got me play along just enough to identify with his version of stitched together reality.

(Part 1 of 2 parts. Click here for Part 2.)

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4 comments to Jeff Wall @ Marian Goodman, NYC (1)

  • Dear Allan,

    As you may know, I have been following your gallery reviews since your days at the NY Times & the Village Voice. It was a pleasure to read your insightful comments again about the Wall show in your collaboration with DLK. (I read it in full Tuesday on the DLK blog.)

    I hope you both continue the exhibition review conversations.

    I particularly would be interested in reviews of photographers who produce work that is transformative, & interesting on a consistent basis.

    Harry Wilks

    • Thanks for the feedback, Harry. Especially useful coming from someone who read me way back when.

      I enjoyed the give-and-take with Knoblauch; very different from looking at different sides of a project from within my own head. I expect he and I will generate more of these, and I may explore the process with other writers as well.

  • Ryan Paternite

    Mr. Coleman,

    I enjoyed this dialog-review. Thank you.

    I wanted to share that I too was “perplexed” by Wall’s persistent use of the term “cinematography” in relation to his work — it seems to me to have little to do with the visual strategies and textures associated with motion picture photography — until, that is, I heard Wall lecture at MOMA in 2007.

    He talked about “cinematography” as an approach to image making that followed a motion picture film making process. He would observe a situation or mood, deciding to recreate it as a photograph (something like the screenplay writing phase). He went through a pre-production phase involving location scouting, set building, casting. Then production, which involved photographing the same place and/or actors over a period of days or weeks in the carefully planned set or location. Finally post-production to include retouching, compositing, printing, lightbox construction, etc..

    So to Wall “cinematography” is process not product. With each aspect of image making carefully planned, controlled, executed his work becomes distinct from “documentary” (for which he had another lengthy and unconventional definition) even though the final image isn’t necessarily cinematic as might be implied by a more conventional definition of the term.

    Not to suggest that an artist has the exclusive right to define his own work but that is what I recall from the lecture. He referred to his works “Mimic” and one other I can’t recall as examples of cinematography.

    I noticed that the lecture is available as a free download from itunes U if anyone is interested.

    • Thanks for this information.

      Curious that Wall applies the terms “cinematography” and/or “cinematographic” to a process that in fact has little relationship to cinematography as a craft. What you describe as his sketch of the activities he means to encompass with that term is exactly what I defined in a 1976 essay as “the directorial mode,” a term that’s since come into widespread use. Screenplay writing, set-building, casting — these are the purviews of the film director, not the cinematographer.

      In filmmaking the cinematographer addresses none of that. In consultation with the director, who has the final say, the cinematographer determines POV, framing, choice of lens, selective depth of field, filtering, mounted vs. handheld camera, etc. I find it implausible that Wall doesn’t know the difference between the cinematographer’s duties and the director’s. And one can’t just arbitrarily declare that a director is a cinematographer, or vice versa.

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