Jeff Wall is renowned for large-format photographs with subject matter that ranges from mundane corners of the urban environment to elaborate tableaux that take on the scale and complexity of nineteenth-century history paintings.
The two strands that interweave throughout Wall’s career were represented in the 27 photographs selected for this major exhibition curated for Australia. One aspect was small-scale, thoughtful observations of things such as a clipped branch or washcloth that show Wall’s attentiveness to what he calls the ‘obscure, unswept corners of everyday life’. The second aspect was the more technically complex and constructed images.
These pictures, usually enlarged to life scale, are inspired by scenes of modern life, cinematic conventions, artistic genres in painting as well as photography, and literature. Wall’s photographs have a detail and clarity that seem to promise revelation and yet, as the artist notes, his images of the everyday touch on a ‘something undisclosed’ – that is not easy to define.
Wall seized on the idea of producing large, backlit photographs after seeing an illuminated advertisement from a bus window. He had recently been to the Prado, Madrid, and the artist combined his knowledge of the Western pictorial tradition – he had studied art history at London’s Courtauld Institute – with his interest in contemporary media to create one of most influential visions in contemporary art. Wall calls his photographs, after Charles Baudelaire, ‘prose poems’, a description that emphasises how each picture should be experienced rather than used to illustrate a pre-determined idea or a specific narrative.
His pictures may depict an instant and a scenario, but the before and after that moment are left completely unknown, allowing them to remain open to multiple interpretations. The prose poem format allows any truth claims of the photograph – the facts we expect from journalistic photography – to remain suspended, and Wall believes that in that suspension the viewer experiences pleasure. In addition to the light-boxes, Wall has made, since 1996, black-and-white prints, and he has recently begun to print large-scale colour inkjet photographs.
Jeff Wall was born in 1946 in Vancouver, Canada, where he lives and works. He has exhibited widely, including solo shows at ICA, London (1984), Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland (1993), Whitechapel Gallery, London (2001), Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg, Germany (2001), Hasselblad Center, Göteborg, Sweden (2002), Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo, Norway (2004) and retrospectives at Schaulager, Basel (2005), Tate Modern (2005) and MoMA, New York (2007), Chicago Art Institute (2007), SFMoMA, San Francisco (2008), Tamayo Museum, Mexico City and Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver (2008), Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden (2010), Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels (2011), Stedeljik Museum, Amsterdam (2014) and Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria (2014).
Group shows include ‘Super Vision’, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2006), ‘Faces in the Crowd: Picturing Modern Life from Manet to Today’, Whitechapel, London (2004), Documenta 11, Kassel, Germany (2002), ‘The Age of Moderism: Art in the 20th Century’, Zeitgeist-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Künste, Berlin (1997), Documenta 10, Kassel, Germany (1997).