As Vancouverites, we unfortunately don’t have many opportunities to see exhibitions of Jeff Wall’s work. Although the artist lives and works in the city, and the Vancouver Art Gallery has significant holdings of his work, it is rare to see more than a couple of his photographs on view at any given time. The likelihood of seeing recent developments in his practice locally is virtually nil, which is why when we visited London this fall we were thrilled to catch his solo show at White Cube’s cavernous Mason’s Yard gallery.
Wall, one of the most celebrated and influential artists working today, has taken over two of White Cube’s large gallery spaces for this exhibition. Upon entering, you immediately encounter a selection of documentary photographs of Sicilian landscapes, shown together for the first time, while the lower-level gallery features works created in the last two years that evidence Wall’s enduring interest in investigating the possibilities of the photographic medium.
The photographs in the lower gallery, while smaller in scale than some of his better-known work and not presented as the light boxes that have become his signature, continue Wall’s exploration of photography’s narrative and documentary potential, and the cinematic qualities inherent to the medium. The works presented here are meticulously staged and artfully composed; Wall is known to spend as much time on a photo shoot as you might expect a large film production to take. These enigmatic works each depict individuals performing a role in scenes that include juxtapositions of disparate elements which enhance the works’ narrative tension. The photograph featuring costume historian, Ivan Sayers, is particularly compelling, with its attention to composition, colour and scale, and its almost seamless integration of documentary and cinematic impulses. Boxing, our personal favourite, creates an odd juxtaposition of the two sparring boys and their extremely banal, yet pristine, middle-class domestic surroundings. Similarly in Band & crowd, the intensity with which the musicians play their instruments is at odds with the disengaged and very distracted crowd.
These new works, while consistent with Wall’s larger practice, are contemporary and fresh both in subject matter and composition, but the subtlety underlying them is extremely powerful and at times slightly unnerving. These are photographs that you can’t help but get lost in as you try to unravel the mystery of the scenes, fruitlessly constructing narratives that might explain what brought these people to these places and created these encounters. Both the compositional and thematic complexity of the works demand prolonged viewing with rewarding results. In New York, check out the same works currently on view at Marian Goodman Gallery (until January 21, 2012).