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Jeff Wall and the Concept of the Picture

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Mon 16-Aug-21 06:47 PM
Jeff Wall and the Concept of the Picture by Naomi Merritt

Over the last quarter of a century, I've been trying to understand Jeff Wall's photographs. Something about them intrigues me but I can't say just what. This book is still another dip into his work.

Merritt explains that Wall is exploring an idea:"an investigation of the ‘Western Concept of the Picture'." Wall was trained as among other things, an art historian. The author quotes extensively from Wall's own words about his art, including articles and interviews. She also uses other sources, most notably the critic and art historian, Michael Fried. Merritt says that Wall believes that until the second half of the twenty century pictures were governed by geometric perspective, with a lineage that can be traced to the re-birth of classicism during the Renaissance. Several "isms" came in the twentieth century, (including conceptualism) that moved away from this point of view. Apparently, his photographs are supposed to be a kind of return to the old form.

Even though reduced size images of his work are included, it's almost impossible to understand Wall's work without considering how his photographs are displayed. They are BIG, usually at least 5 feet high, with some of them 10 or 12 feet long. At least until recently they were displayed on a light box, illuminated from the rear on Cibarchrome, a color transparency medium. These images, which might seem spontaneous, were carefully posed and lighted, occasionally with a crew as large as a small movie crew. Often the photographs involved digital assemblage from many elements.

Wall is a believer in Baudelaire's idea of "pictures from every day life", like a man crouching in front of a building while milk splashes from his cup or a couple passing another man on the street and apparently making fun of his ethnicity.

However, this is not a review of Wall's work but of Merritt's. A large portion of the book is quotation or reference to other sources. It seemed to me that what Wall has to say about his own work might be more revealing than anything Merritt has to say. However even that bears a caution sign. For example, Wall has said that his work is a reaction to the artistic idea of conceptualism. The Tate Modern says "conceptual art is art for which the idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object". Yet Wall's work seems grounded in his ideas about art. I long ago came to feel that one should not rely too heavily on what artists say about their own work.

After her broad discussion of Wall's (shall we call it) philosophy, she examines four specific works. Often like Wall, she lapses into jargon. On two occasions, one dealing with a photograph of people working on a 360 degree diorama, and another based upon a print by the Japanese woodblock artist Hokusai, she wanders completely off the reservation discussing the perspective problems of dioramas and the role of Mount Fuji in Hokusai's art (even though Fuji doesn't appear in Wall's photograph). It was as if work prepared for another purpose had been dropped into the book.

I have no doubt why I believe Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon and Steve Shore are important photographers. After reading this volume, I've come no closer to understanding my feelings about Jeff Wall.

Note: The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book at no charge.