Progression of Art
The Destroyed Room
The Destroyed Room, from 1978, is one of Canadian artist Jeff Wall's first and most iconic photographs. The work consists of a large photograph printed as a cibachrome transparency within a fluorescent lightbox. Around 5 by 8 feet in size, the work is both vivid and imposing. Offering a stark view of a seemingly ravaged space the image forces the viewer to confront the destruction of items found within the typically intimate space of a bedroom. Clothes are spilling out of the drawers of a wooden dresser, a bed is turned on its side with its pale green mattress slashed, possessions such as clothing and accessories are strewn about the floor, and large pieces of the red wall are missing, exposing the pink insulation underneath.
With this photograph, Wall first began making overt references to some of the most famous examples of classical painting from the 19th century. In The Destroyed Room, the large-scale oil painting titled The Death of Sardanapalus, painted by Eugene Delacroix in 1827, is the source of inspiration. The painting depicts an Assyrian king, Sardanapalus, casually reclined on an enormous red bed as he watches his most prized possessions - living and non-living - being destroyed. The slaughter of concubines and servants, horses and dogs, was prompted by an invading enemy. Rather than surrender, the king decides to end his life, but not before ensuring that his belongings would never be enjoyed by anyone else. Many elements in Wall's photograph echo the visual details of Delacroix's painting, including the diagonal composition of objects from the top left corner to the bottom right corner of the frame, the bright pink and red hues that invoke the nudity of the female concubines and the blood of the violent acts, and the likely evidence of physical struggle.
While The Death of Sardanapalus depicts an act of violence as it occurs, Wall shows an aftermath. Whereas the painting shows the luxurious space of a male ruler, the photograph seems to show a woman's small living space. Wall's work is devoid of people, though, leaving the viewer to imagine who might have occupied the space and why the room became destroyed. However, Wall has purposely left remnants of the staging process of the scene in the final image, making the fabrication of the room obvious. Upon scrutiny, it's possible to see that at least one of the room's three walls is only barely supported with wooden beams. In an article entitled "The Luminist" in The New York Times Magazine on the occasion of Wall's retrospective exhibition in 2007, Arthur Lubow remarks how Wall has admitted that he enjoys the process of artistry just as much as the final product.
In The Destroyed Room, Wall not only hints at the creative process, but also engages with the questions raised by Conceptual artists of the time. Throughout the 1970s, photography was increasingly used by artists to call attention to the fabricated quality of art and the performance of subject matter and ideas within artworks. For these artists, including Wall, photography was freed from its role of visually capturing the real world. By creating a large-scale, fictional image that recalls the grandeur and narrative of classical painting, Wall challenges the documentary role that photography often plays. But by mounting the image in a lightbox, his work also resembles imagery from cinema or advertising found in popular, contemporary culture. Thus, Wall simultaneously highlights the real and imagined in art, raising photography to the level of fine art typically held by painting over the ages while referencing elements of the modern day.
Cibachrome transparency in fluorescent lightbox - The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Picture for Women
Jeff Wall's photograph Picture for Women, from 1979, continues the artist's investigation of 19th century painting within the framework of contemporary photography. The image reveals a reflection in a mirror of a sparse studio room, furnished with metallic office chairs, a work table, uncovered lightbulbs, pipes, and cinderblock. Despite the mundane scenery, the composition of the image follows traditional aesthetic rules of photography, such as dividing the picture into thirds, balancing the composition both horizontally and vertically. In the left third, a woman stands with her hands resting on a long table or bar, solemnly confronting the viewer. Wall's camera is in the center of the image, and Wall himself stands in the right third; his body faces the camera, but his face is turned toward the woman. He holds the camera's shutter release cable in his visible hand, confirming his authorship of the image before us. Although this work is also mounted within a lightbox, like his previous work The Destroyed Room, calling to mind the visual qualities of film or large advertisements, such as billboards, the presence of the photographer within the final image departs from the invisibility of the makers of those elements of popular culture and modern consumerism.
Picture for Women addresses the male gaze, a topic increasingly analyzed, debated, and often resisted within the art world in the years surrounding this picture's creation and display. The work is also an homage to one of the most famous paintings by Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), which Wall would have seen in the collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art's Gallery - where Wall studied art history in London. In Manet's painting of this famous Parisian cabaret, where patrons could not only purchase drinks but also sexual encounters from the barmaids, a female bartender stands in the center of the frame confronting the viewer with an emotionless expression, as if waiting to hear her patron's order or request. Since the viewer can clearly see the back of her body reflected in the mirror along with the face of a man facing her, the viewer is directly implicated in the scene by supposedly occupying the very space of the patron. Not only do we see the male gaze in action, we are also participating in it. Similarly, Wall's photograph puts viewers in the center of the image by aiming the camera lens directly at us, highlighting our participation in the observation of the woman in the photograph while also witnessing Wall fix his male gaze upon her too. The viewers then also fall victim to the male gaze, as the photographer supposedly captures our image with the camera as well.
Just as other artists and scholars were exploring the processes and consequences of the male gaze in various media, Wall was forcing himself and his audience to investigate it in historical and aesthetic terms. Simultaneously, Wall's early works from the late 1970s and 1980s engage with questions of appropriation, as he adds to the conversation of postmodernist pastiche percolating in those years. In these photographs, Wall borrows distinct visual elements and narrative concepts from previous artworks, particularly oil paintings considered hallmarks of artistic achievement in the canon of art history, but he redesigns them for contemporary environments and audiences. Experiments with artistic and cultural appropriation within the framework of contemporary art and photography questioned traditional definitions of what art had to be, and what it could display. In his essay from 1977 for an exhibition he organized at Artists Space in New York City, Douglas Crimp referred to the works of contemporary artists engaging with the problems and themes of appropriation as "pictures". By using this broad umbrella term to identify these works, of which Jeff Wall's photographs are akin, Crimp emphasized what he saw as their most important quality: "recognizable images." In many ways, Wall's early photographs certainly make use of recognizable images, while challenging the common understanding of these images, their contexts, and their users.
Cibachrome transparency mounted on a lightbox - The Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)
Wall's A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), reinterprets the scene in a woodcut print by Japanese printmaker and painter Katsushika Hokusai. Part of the larger portfolio called The Thirty-six Views of Fuji, Hokusai's original image, Travelers Caught in a Sudden Breeze at Ejiri (c. 1832), depicts seven individuals caught off-guard in the wind at different points along a narrow path. The path weaves its way through lush green and blue fields, with the majestic Mount Fuji resting in the background. In Wall's photographic work, the individuals caught in the wind in the foreground mimic the poses of the travelers in the earlier woodcut, but otherwise evoke a time and place far removed from the calm Japanese landscape.
Wall's large-scale image is actually made up of multiple photographs taken over the course of several months, then later digitally combined to create a final collaged composition. Four figures appear caught mid-movement, situated at different points in front of a canal of water cutting through an otherwise barren field. We see mostly flat lands stretch into the background, with a row of power lines receding on the right side of the image, suggesting a more industrialized location than the site in the original woodcut. A figure at the far left of the group crouches slightly, head obscured by a displaced scarf and hand holding a red folder that is losing its paper contents in the wind in a diagonal direction up and over the group to the right. Dressed for the outdoors in rubber boots and hat, another figure in the center bends with his back against the wind, clutching his jacket and walking stick. To his immediate right, the other center figure (dressed more formally, in buttoned shirt and tie) desperately looks upwards, arms outstretched and torso turned, as if ruefully watching the papers disappear into the wind. Finally, a figure at the far right crouches down closer to the water in the canal, holding on to his hat lest it escape. To the left are two tall, thin trees bending in the wind and nearly touching the top of the frame, their leaves blowing off and mixing with other papers scattered in the air. Taken together, the scene appears to be a random moment frozen in time, even when the elements seem incongruous. As arranged, these visual details beg more questions than they answer: the viewer is caught mid-story, unaware of why these people are gathered in this empty, dull space, or how this scene relates to that of Hokusai's travelers.
Although this work continues techniques and themes first explored in Wall's earlier photographs, it adds new layers to the broader investigation of photography's role in both portraying reality and creating fictional narratives. This is also a large transparency displayed in a lightbox, with the light source coming from behind the image rather than spotlighting it from the front. The artist's use of these big lightboxes to display photographs has often been discussed in reference to Wall's interest in film, as the cinematic image is obscured until seen against a bright light. Here, too, just as the gaps between individual frames of film are hidden when the reel of film is in motion, Wall also attempts to mask the gaps that took place in time between the original photographs and the traces of their separate frames when combined all together in the final composition. In this way, Wall blurs the line between reality and fiction. On the one hand, the photograph displays real people caught in a real gust of wind. But on the other hand, it also displays an imagined scene that never existed in reality as it is presented to the viewer. As such, the viewer is left to wonder about what they are actually seeing. Wall may find his inspiration in the examination of influential works from earlier artists, but he reworks these compositions in ways that challenge the assumed narratives affiliated with certain times, places, and people, as well as the assumed uses of particular visual media.
Cibachrome transparency mounted on a lightbox - The Tate Museum, London
After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue
This photograph explores the relationship between images and their influences, questioning how closely images need to adhere to the aesthetic and conceptual features of their original source material. In this instance, Wall's photograph is a product of what the artist calls "accidents of reading," in which Wall conjures particular pictures in his mind in response to what he observes in his life, everything from books and artworks to encounters on the street.
The image depicts a barefoot man sitting on a folding chair in a cluttered and windowless room. We see him from behind in three-quarter profile, facing the back wall, wearing a white undershirt, brown suspenders and brown pants. His elbows rest on his knees while he holds a rag to a silver pot, most likely making it cleaner and increasing its reflective shine. A bed is against the wall to his right, to his left is a green arm chair and small rectangular wood side table covered in bowls and containers. A record player sits on a dresser to the left of the structure, with another folding chair covered with reading material in front of it, symbols of intellectual and recreational pursuits. To the very left of the image is a counter covered with dishes and food remains, and articles of clothing are scattered and hung throughout the entire room. It would appear that essential parts of living - eating, sleeping, leisure - all exist in this one-room space for the individual. Most impressively, and surprisingly, the ceiling is covered with a hanging mass of mostly unlit round and oblong lightbulbs.
In this work, Wall identifies specific source material for the imagery (Ralph Ellison's novel The Invisible Man), but he recreates for his viewers only the qualities that form his personal recollection and subsequent impression of this material. Called "the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century," by TIME magazine, Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man is also considered to be the first recognized, literary achievement by a Black American writer. The novel relates a young Black American man's experience with racism and discrimination in the late 1930s in New York City. In the prologue, the narrator describes himself as an "invisible man." He explains that he is not actually invisible, but rather considers himself invisible because others refuse to see him; notably, he is invisible because he is not deemed to be worthy of notice from others, and often finds himself insulted and degraded because of the color of his skin. Although the narrator recalls moments of rage and even violence against those who ignore and/or insult him, Wall's image does not engage with those emotionally charged moments in the text. Instead, Wall chooses to include the physical elements of the basement that help establish the overall visual and emotional experience of the scene that Wall wishes to convey.
The man - also the narrator and main character - sits in the basement where he lives. As described in the novel, the basement space (called a "hole" by the narrator) is a forgotten area in a building "rented strictly to whites," yet the man lives there secretly, not paying for rent or the electricity he uses to illuminate the space and fill the room with music. Exactly 1,369 lightbulbs hover over the entire room from the ceiling, sapping power but also giving life-affirming light. The narrator claims that "light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form," so he has provided himself the means of feeling present and recognized in a world that otherwise would exclude him from participation.
Familiarity with the original book adds depth to the viewer's experience, but is not necessary to give the photograph meaning. The basement's cramped and messy condition creates a sense of anxiety and isolation, signaling a level of separation from the rest of the world. The man is turned away from the viewer, intensifying this feeling of social detachment. Though this small space lacks windows that would let in the noises and light of the outside, the room is incredibly bright. Only some of the many lightbulbs are lit, however, inviting the viewer to see the many visual details of the space without knowing how this level of detail is capable of being so visible. This conundrum hints at the ideas of visibility and invisibility explored in the novel, yet even an unfamiliar viewer could perceive the reference from the photograph's title. The image makes the man and his possessions visible to viewers, yet the man would not know he is being viewed from his positioning, thus remaining invisible in his own mind. Therefore, what constitutes visibility is relative to individual experience, constantly shifting depending on one's self-awareness and surroundings.
Like much of Wall's work, this photograph is carefully staged, pushing against the idea of authenticity commonly associated with documentary photography. Unlike his early pictures, however, this work takes advantage of digital photographic techniques. Here, Wall can achieve an overall effect that would have otherwise been impossible to accomplish in one take. In After "Invisible Man", the amount of well-lit corners and the brightness and clarity of the foreground, midground, and background is a result of this montage construction.
Silver dye bleach transparency; aluminum light box - The Museum of Modern Art
In the photograph Changing Room, Wall depicts a woman standing in a changing room, presumably within a department store. Although the experience of trying on clothes in a store may be mundane and familiar to viewers, the fact that the woman in the photograph is struggling to pull a second dress over her head, on top of one she already dons, signals a more devious act in the making. A duplicate of her red dress is on a hanger in the left side of the frame, hovering over a purple tote bag on the floor and other clothes piled on a small end table or stool. Wall's image was inspired by observing a woman shoplifting from the high-end fashion store Barney's, where, "She went into the fitting room with two of the same Bottega Veneta dresses to try on, and she wore a thin silk dress so that she could easily slip one over the dress." As in his previous works inspired by "accidents of reading," Wall chooses to recreate the main features of this moment that stuck with him as he pondered the event later on, rather than recreating each detail faithfully or trying to snap a picture of the incident as it happened.
Wall refers to his photography as "near-documentary," that is, a re-creation of an event he has experienced. He questions the importance of in-the-moment 'documentation,' usually considered a key role of photography in general. These works are deliberately composed to resemble documentary photographs, visually reminding readers of a photograph's ability to present things as they currently are in reality. Clearly, then, Wall is interested in investigating the assumption that photographs show actual events as they occur, since the meticulous fabrication involved in the production of his photographs undermines this traditional notion. Wall frees himself from the expectations that photography should capture real moments and freeze them in time. By recreating episodes that he has witnessed from his own memory, he gives himself room to add his own narrative and aesthetic elements. Rather than accepting reality as it is, he distorts it and enhances it to his preferences. As Wall states, this process "gives me imaginative freedom that is crucial to the making of art. That, in fact, is what art is about - the freedom to do what we want."
Changing Room showcases Wall's ability to suggest a lot with selective visual details. With only one human figure and few environmental features, this picture still offers the viewer a rich and puzzling story. What that story ends up being, though, is not confined to either events in reality or Wall's memory, but rather it is left to the viewer to imagine. Unlike traditional photography that is supposed to show the viewer a moment that took place, Wall's photography releases the picture from that responsibility and distributes the narrative task across the artist, the image, and the audience instead.
Inkjet Print - The White Cube Gallery, London
Wall's photograph, Listener, offers an unsettling perspective of six men in a barren outdoor space. A pale, bearded, and shirtless man awkwardly kneels on the ground in the center. His head is angled, ear pointing toward another man who leans in his direction as he stands over him, supposedly saying something to this central figure. Other men hover on either side of this pair, cut off by the picture's frame to only reveal parts of their bodies from the torso down.
Around the group, the ground looks hard and dusty, with a few small branches, rocks, and tufts of yellowed grass and straw scattered throughout. Strong light shines from the left side of the frame, causing harsh shadows and hot spots. Despite the brightness of the scene, the image is distressing upon consideration. Who are these men? Why is there a man on the ground without his shirt, surrounded and closed in by the others? What could they possibly be discussing in such a remote place?
Wall describes the image as "the kind of scenario you read about in the media quite frequently of late: someone taken captive by a group and put down on the ground. It does not bode well." In cases such as these, there is discomfort--even fear--in the unknown; similarly, this image leaves much to the imagination. As Wall implies, we assume the worst from a story of forced abduction, whether real or imagined, and the visual and narrative qualities of this photograph exploit those assumptions. Even the title, Listener, suggests the need for careful attention, lest something terrible happen if instructions are not followed.
Like much of Wall's other work, this image has been carefully composed but appears spontaneous. The cropping of the men's bodies seems accidental, since most of their heads and faces are absent in the frame. However, as we have seen, virtually nothing in Wall's final compositions is accidental. Through the content and stylistic choices here, Wall is able to hold his viewer in a tight grip, providing an opportunity for their imagination to take flight and then taking advantage of that opportunity to sustain their gaze through a mix of anxiety and wonderment.
Inkjet Print - The White Cube Gallery, London