Epic and luminous, the work of Jeff Wall has overturned nearly every convention of photography. Meticulously staged and theatrical in scale, Wall's images have more in common with the grandest history painting of the 18th century and the flickering mesmerism of cinema than with the fleeting, documentary style of much of modern photography. This Vancouver-based artist, who pioneered the use of the light box as a vehicle for displaying photographs, is the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, which will be on view from June 29 to September 23, 2007, in the museum's Regenstein Hall.
Jeff Wall, traveling to the Art Institute from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, features 41 works, measuring on average 6 feet by 8 feet. Their size and scale are testaments to the ambitions of permanence Wall brings to photography-as grand as monumental painting of the past three centuries, painstakingly staged and constructed, and digitally combined and altered. Wall's vision and use of photography represent a bold step forward in the reconsideration of the medium as analogous to the "fine art" of painting and sculpture rather than a part of a separate sphere of technically mediated image-making.
An early interest in contemporary art led Wall (b. 1946 in Vancouver) in the early 1970s to London's Courtauld Institute of Art to study art history and critical theory. He returned in 1973 to Vancouver to teach and nurture his nascent ambition of being a filmmaker. But a trip to the Prado in 1977 brought his interests-in art history and film-together as he recognized the cinematic quality and explosive intensity of the paintings of Diego Velázquez, among others. It was then, in the late 1970s, that Wall began producing his signature images, the vibrant, staged tableaus on view at the Art Institute.
The same trip to Europe led Wall to what has been described as his "bus-stop epiphanies." As he traveled, he noticed the advertising light boxes on bus-stop kiosks, which seemed to him to share the same vibrant, luminous quality of the paintings that affected him greatly in the Prado. When he resumed making art, these influences-the paintings of Velázquez and Manet, the illuminated advertisements, his long interest in film-combined into the monumental light-box transparencies that have reshaped the field of contemporary photography.
The works on view in the exhibition are both highly real and distinctly unreal. While they have the formal clarity of documentary photography, many are scrupulously constructed, often taking years to complete. Derived in part from renowned works of art or from scenes Wall has witnessed, many of the transparencies are as thoroughly staged as films. Wall uses sets, lighting, camera angles, location shoots, and "actors" to stage a narrative or create his illusions. He also relies heavily on virtual manipulations through computer technology and digital montages to blend a fantasy image with no real referent. Especially since 1991, many of his major works are the result of digitally conjoining several, or sometimes even hundreds, of discrete photographic moments shot "in the field" with manufactured images produced in the studio.
One highlight of the exhibition is a work from the Art Institute's permanent collection entitled Flooded Grave (1998-2000), an elaborately manipulated montage photograph that took Wall almost two years to create. To achieve Flooded Grave, Wall first employed two marine biologists and a botanist to harvest a sophisticated ecosystem that included starfish, anemones, urchins, and plant life. Then Wall superimposed a photograph of the mature ecosystem on another multi-layered image of scenes from a graveyard where he and a crew had painstakingly dug a hole to match the precise dimensions of his man-made ecosystem. In the end, Flooded Grave is an image that conflates numerous "real" photographs to create a scene that never existed, "composed, but not false," said James Rondeau, the Frances & Thomas Dittmer Chair of Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, who is the supervising curator of the exhibition in Chicago.
Since the late 1980s, Wall has also returned to what might be considered more classic uses of the medium. In addition to his large, staged work, he has executed smaller, more traditional landscape and still-life images such as Some Beans (1990) and An Octopus (1990). He describes these images as "less indebted to the dialectic of painting and cinema . . . and more connected to what I think of as the mainstream of photography." While still in a large light-box format, these quiet yet compositionally rigorous works point to Wall's versatility as a photographer and his respect for the medium.
Wall's work also conveys an intellectual engagement with art history unusual among his contemporaries. Many of his photographs make reference to landscape and still-life painting, literature, and, in some cases, canonical works of art. In works like A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (1993) and After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (1999-2000) Wall makes his references transparent, while in other works the art historical connection is more attenuated. Wall's Mimic (1982), for example-a picture that recreates racial taunting Wall had witnessed on the street-makes an oblique reference to the Art Institute's own iconic painting Paris Street, Rainy Day by French Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte.
Jeff Wall is a rare opportunity to see works produced over nearly three decades, allowing viewers to not only enjoy the dazzling images themselves but to also experience an artist's career as it evolves and develops.
A lecture by the artist will take place on Thursday, June 28 at 6:00 p.m. in Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute of Chicago. This event occurs during the museum's Free Summer Hours (May 31 to August 31 Thursday and Friday evenings from 5 to 9 p.m.) and thus is free and open to the public. A full-color catalogue of the exhibition is available through the Art Institute's museum shop. The catalogue includes nearly 150 images, an essay by Peter Galassi, Chief Curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and an interview with the artist by Art Institute curator James Rondeau.
The exhibition Jeff Wall is organized by the Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It will be on view at the Art Institute of Chicago from June 29, 2007 to September 23, 2007 in Regenstein Hall. LaSalle Bank is the Lead Corporate Sponsor of the Chicago presentation. The exhibition is also supported by The Boeing Company. Additional support is provided by Howard and Donna Stone.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Acquired through the Mary Joy Thomson Legacy.
© Jeff Wall.