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Jeff Wall @ Marian Goodman, NYC (2)

A. D. Coleman, 2010. Photograph copyright by Willie Chu.An Exhibition Review by A. D. Coleman and Loring Knoblauch (cont’d)

This is the second part of a collaboration between Loring Knoblauch of the blog DLK Collection and myself: an experimental collaboration 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 via email. (Click here for Part 1.)

Loring suggested that we use the then-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 closed on January 21st; the gallery has archived an online version of it here. This review appears also at the Collector Daily site.

Marian Goodman Gallery logo

ADC: The only piece in the show that engaged me was what I sense is among your unfavorites — the sequence of four comparatively small images (see screenshot below) revolving around a battered old suitcase covered with 1930s travel stickers and the period catalogue for the Berlin-based custom tailor N. Israel, titled “Authentication: Claus Jahnke, costume historian, examining a document relating to an item in his collection, 2010.” Conceivably this is a fiction, the props all invented, but that would involve more elaborate forgery than anything Wall has produced before. These objects seem authentic, and I take them as such, which adds to the power of the piece. (Note: A web search subsequently revealed that both Claus Jahnke and N. Israel’s Berlin business did in fact exist. For a brief account of the history of the N. Israel department store, which “[b]y the 1930s was one of the largest and most versatile commercial enterprises in Berlin,” click here.)

Jeff Wall at Marian Goodman Gallery, website screenshot

In the first image, Wall’s camera looks down on the exterior of the suitcase, whose frayed ID sticker indicates that its owner, one Hermann Rosenthal, traveled with it cabin class in a stateroom on the Holland-America line to Vancouver in 1932, presumably from Rotterdam, that company’s home port. On top of the suitcase lies the catalogue, its cover showing N. Israel’s line of winter clothing, in the upper right-hand corner an autographed image of Leni Riefenstahl endorsing his product line and presumably wearing one of his ski outfits. In the second, a man in his forties sits in an armchair with a box of memorabilia on his lap, studying the same catalogue; the open suitcase and several other costumes appear in the background. In the third, we see the catalogue open to a two-page spread of shirts; and in the fourth we see a real-life example of one of those shirts on a hanger, bearing the N. Israel label. (Note: This describes the sequence as hung in the gallery.)

N. Israel, winter catalogue 1932, from the Claus Jahnke Collection.

N. Israel, winter catalogue 1932, from the Claus Jahnke Collection.

On one level, then, we have a humdrum scene, an archivist verifying an item against its available documentation. But you don’t need to know a lot of history to recall that Riefenstahl was then the sexy outdoorsy star of a series of German mountaineering movies, with Adolf Hitler already among her fans; that in 1932 she’d direct her first movie, while also reading Mein Kampf and hearing Hitler speak live at a rally for the first time, becoming entranced with him; that Hitler would become chancellor of Germany in January 1933; and that all hell would then break loose. Riefenstahl certainly wouldn’t be buying any more clothing from high-end German-Jewish tailors, much less serving as cover girl for their brochures. Hermann Rosenthal didn’t need a weatherman. He had enough money to buy custom-tailored clothes, so he got out early, making his way to the Netherlands and thence to Canada. N. Israel most probably wasn’t so savvy, or so lucky.

Leni Riefenstahl, "SOS Iceberg," movie poster, 1933.

Leni Riefenstahl, “SOS Iceberg,” movie poster, 1933.

Thus there’s a multilayered narrative within this quiet piece, one that unfolds gradually. Unlike most of Wall’s work, which asks the viewer to read things into the images (preferably intentionalist readings based on the photographer’s statements of purpose), this piece requires the viewer to read things out of the images, to decipher the embedded content by bringing to it not what the photographer says it means but what 20th-century history imposes on it as meaning. As that’s my preferred relationship to photographs, this piece satisfies me as none of the others do.

DLK: You are right that the four-image group isn’t among my favorites, but this opinion has less to do with the content of the supposed narrative and more with the conceptual approach he is employing. For the first time, Wall has gone beyond the single image narrative and is tying multiple individual pictures together via the kind of competing, simultaneous perspectives that Barbara Probst has explored. But instead of the technical rigor and investigation into the nature of seeing that makes Probst’s works intriguing, Wall’s use of this method seems altogether quaint.

We move in and around the room, zooming in and out, catching repeat glimpses or close-ups of certain details. I realize that this is all in the name of advancing a certain non-linear narrative style, but I couldn’t get past the thought that I had seen this idea done better elsewhere, and that Wall’s interpretation of the process didn’t push the concept in any new directions. It just felt derivative, not transformative, and so I didn’t engage with the story being told with the same excitement that you did.

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

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

My favorite image in the show was the extra-longly titled Ivan Sayers, Costume Designer, Lectures at the University Women’s Club, Vancouver, 7 December 2009. Virginia Newton-Moss Wears a British Ensemble c. 1910 from Sayers’ Collection (on the right, at right). What I found captivating in this picture was the complexity of the glances and angles on display underneath the ordinariness of the fashion setting. Sayers is looking in one direction (apparently at the seated audience), and the model is staged a bit in front of him and looking at a slight angle to his glance, almost across the audience and to her right.

The viewer looks on these two subjects from a sideways, nearly tangential view, and the audience (two different sets, alternately reflected in the mirrored doors) sits to our effective left, opposite Sayers. I stood in front of this picture for several minutes trying to work it all out. To me, this kind of multiple viewpoint control is much more effective than what Wall was trying to accomplish in the multi-image set. Packing all those angles into one frame creates some durable tension (I can imagine admiring this image in a decade and still finding it entertaining), whereas separating them out and cutting our food for us takes all the fizz out, at least for me.

ADC: I don’t find the “Authentication” series as busy as you suggest; where you see the camera “zooming in and out,” I see it dwelling calmly on the minimal but telling details. Nor is it narrative in the traditional sense; it’s three simple still lifes and a profile study of a man in a chair. In fact, I consider the progression as presented in the gallery arbitrary, making it a suite rather than a sequence; its content wouldn’t shift radically if you reshuffled the order.

Leni Riefenstahl, "Triumph of the Will," 1934, film still.

Leni Riefenstahl, “Triumph of the Will,” 1934, film still.

But that content, and the story I sketched based on it, is inherent in the material, inescapable  at least to anyone who recognizes the sociopolitical context of these relics. So the title becomes richly ironic, the costume historian’s process of “authentication” presumably completed by locating the clothing items within the catalogue, whereas a less narrowcast historical method, such as that of Fernand Braudel, would deepen our grasp of the past century by locating all of it  catalogue, clothing, suitcase, travel labels, even the costume historian as a type of cultural artifact  within their respective times and places.

In fact, I could argue that this suite is the linchpin of the show (the front room’s images, anyhow), with the others  the young boxers, the boy falling from the tree, the rock club, and the small-group fashion lecture you admire most, even the b&w portrait of the wet young man  as present-day events linked to that specific past, the boys and the costume historians conceivably descendants of Rosenthal’s, living safely (or facing their own vicissitudes) in Vancouver today. But that would be a stretch.

In any case, I’m not suggesting that this little suite breaks new ground either stylistically or conceptually. Indeed, it’s possible to read it as retrograde in relation to Wall’s practice. Be that as it may, it’s the one I’ve carried away with me and will think further about.

DLK: The fact that you and I have both identified at least one image (if not more than one) that we think merits some further consideration is probably the best possible place to wrap up our discussion. Wall has clearly been experimenting with a variety of storytelling elements in these pictures, some old and some new, and with varying degrees of success. But if he can come up with a small number of enduringly intriguing images on a time scale of every two years (the general span of his recent gallery shows), I am left asking myself: what more can we reasonably expect?

Perhaps this particular batch wasn’t as broadly innovative as others before (maybe the problems and solutions have evolved more slowly and incrementally), and perhaps the secondary images on view here will ultimately be left in the margins, but aren’t a couple of solid outcomes every few years a standard to which many contemporary photographers would happily aspire? In the end, this show was decidedly a mixed bag, but there were just enough subtle, unexpected gestures on display here to keep me off balance, leaving me to wonder where Wall’s exacting exploration of photographic narrative might take him next.

Robert Frank, "The Americans," first U.S. edition, 1959.

Robert Frank, “The Americans,” first U.S. edition, 1959.

ADC: As a critic, I try to approach each project (a book, a show) as an entity in itself, to gauge whatever satisfactions it affords and dissatisfactions it provokes, and only then to add it to the larger oeuvre in order to weigh it in relation to the whole. The question of expectations re quantity of output depends so much on the mode within which the photographer works and the processes of production within that mode that I hesitate to answer this last question.

Had Robert Frank returned from the two-year period during which he generated The Americans with “a couple of solid outcomes”  say, a dozen of the very best images in that sequence  he surely wouldn’t have had a transformative impact on his medium. On the other hand, Frederick Sommer’s total redacted photographic body of work (leaving aside the late collages, the quasi-musical “scores,” etc.) probably comes to less than 150 images, made over half a century  perhaps three images a year on average.

As I noted in my preamble to the first part of this review, both Loring Knoblauch and I welcome feedback, at either or both of our sites, on the content of this joint review but also on the tag-team method by which we generated it.

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