Thursday 15 December 2011

The ‘near documentary’ vision of Jeff Wall

Throughout the 1970s, a camera artist like Walker Evans was lauded as a ‘documentary’ photographer. It was easy, then, to regard his work so simply. Such a skewed perspective was fashionable and a stance driven by the recognition that the Farm Security Administration’s photographic project resulted in some of the best portraits ever of America’s identity. As a plain record maker, Walker’s achievement was pigeonholed as that of a photographer who merely discovered his subjects rather than transformed our understanding of them.

Today, the term ‘documentary’ is used much more hesitantly. Post-modernism caused this shift because new approaches to camera work appeared that validated the trope of ‘fabricated to be photographed’ imagery. Two of the most notable practioners of this mode of image construction are Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman.

Jeff Wall’s art has recently shifted in its nature and direction. It has become less art historical in its referencing and more connected with an expression of streetwise experience. Jeff has a fascinating show at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York until 21 January 2012. The gallery’s promotion of the show is perceptive: “In these new works the artist continues to address the neo-realist and near-documentary concerns at the core of his practice for the past decades.”

Near-documentary? Marian Goodman’s press-release further states that Wall’s art is a “hybrid integration of the documentary and the cinematographic, the ‘street’ and the monumental, two directions he has pursued simultaneously, while being partial to neither.” I would add that Jeff’s new images engage with youth culture and elegantly mess about with its chaos.

If you have seen Jeff Wall’s art then its physical scale is essential to its perception. The fact that his new photographs appear to be on the cusp of reality without ever representing reality is a key to how you can read them. Obviously, they are records of an instantaneous moment where action appears irreal. More than that, they are momentary dramas.

I am grateful to Marian for permission to reproduce Jeff’s photographs.

Jeff Wall
Boxing 2011
Colour photograph
87-3/4 x 119-1/2 x 2 in.
222.8 x 303.5 x 5.08 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris

Jeff Wall
Band and crowd 2011
Chromogenic print
92-1/2 x 168-3/4 x 2 in.
234.9 x 428.6 x 5.08 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris

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