Art, a form of self-expression, can create or reflect reality. Canadian artist Jeff Wall (born 1946) expresses himself by recreating paintings as photographic panoramas and by reflecting a natural but staged reality. His work is "clearly the work of a man with a deft visual sense and an interestingly complicated mind," noted Jed Perl in the New Republic.
Jeff Wall was born in 1946 in Canada. Growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wall pursued his artistic talent with support from his family. Yet, his decision to attend the University of British Columbia and not an art school surprised his relatives. This would be only one decision that seemed out of character for an artist. Wall earned a master's degree in art and continued his doctoral education at the Courtauld Institute in London. However, "feeling that he had acquired enough learning to serve his creative purposes," commented Lee Robbins in ARTnews, Wall left the Institute and began a career, not as an artist, but as a teacher.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Wall taught art history at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and at Simon Fraser University. By 1987, Wall accepted a position at his alma mater, the University of British Columbia, where he remains a member of the faculty. Other personal information Wall has kept private. He believes that "this information is [not] relevant to an understanding of his art," reported Robbins in ARTnews. However, the public has learned that Wall is married and has maintained a close relationship to his family—they have appeared as models in his photographs.
Recreated Old Masters into Photographs
Wall's journey as an artist began in the 1960s. During this time of dropping out, establishment rejection, and free love, Wall discovered that "the best tool for expressing his own conceptual ideas [was photography] and taught himself how to use a camera," Robbins stated in ARTnews. By the early 1970s, Wall had successfully revealed his artistic ideas by blending both written text and photographs to create a documentary of everyday life.
By the late 1970s, Wall had tired of creating documentaries. He wanted to "move back toward pictorial art," ARTnews further affirmed. He wanted to create powerful images that represented, and not just documented, life but was unsure of how to do so. Inspiration struck when Wall noticed how lighted advertisements on city streets captured his attention. "I thought immediately that the medium although it was used for advertising—in fact did not belong to advertising in any essential sense," he told ARTnews. "It was a free medium, one inherent to photography and film."
Wall explored this new, free medium by recreating legendary paintings as photographic backlit transparencies. For example, in 1978, Wall reflected the past with his work, The Destroyed Room. Taking the theme of hidden violence within the home from Delacroix's 1827 work Death of Sardanapalus, The Destroyed Room offered its own depiction of modern life. Wall connected the two works by restaging "compositional elements … in contemporary urban settings, tempering them with an aura of 20th-century banality," noted ARTnews.
For the next 10 years, Wall continued recreating paintings into photographs. In 1979, he even "metaphorically [placed himself] in the role of Manet's obtrusive male customer-spectator" in his recreation of that artist's Picture for Women noted Reed Johnson in the Daily News. Wall's reasoning for these recreations are "not out to bury art in worshipful attitudes, but to grapple with its most exacting standards."
Art critics praised Wall for his ingenuity in using backlight for his photography and for his honorable attempts to bring masterful paintings new life through pictures. More praise was to come because Wall's true self-expression had not yet been explored. His true self was not a recreative photographer. As the Times (London) stated, Wall's true self was much more theatrical: "Wall has the hands and the eyes of a photographer, but in his veins the blood of a cinematographer flows."
Turned Photography into Film-Making
During the 1990s, Wall began seeing photography as a medium to connect film and literature to art. To create such a connection, Wall first redesigned his studio, modeling it after "cinematic film production-miniaturized," stated ARTnews. Next, he began shooting his photographs much like a Hollywood movie; he built and dressed large sets, gathered costumes, and hired models. The resulting photographs were a representation of the natural world. However, Wall had not simply happened upon a scene and clicked a picture. He artificially recreated the natural scene where he controlled the image.
This control of the image dominated much of Wall's future works. Art in America writer Richard Vine noticed that in these works the "forced stillness, irreal lighting and blatantly artificial composition" question their reality. For example, in his 1995 photograph Man on the Street, Wall juxtaposes one man sitting on a bench, his gaze downward, smiling with that of the same man walking down the street, his gaze still downward, frowning. The viewer recognizes that the scene is staged, but by "blatantly devising his shots, he induces us [viewers] to ask exactly what is we ordinarily read as "natural"—and why," Vine further commented.
Wall's artification of the natural world drove him to search everywhere for subjects and themes for his work. He told Robbins in ARTnews that "a subject can emerge from anything at all… . Reading something, meeting a person whose appearance sets something off, a place… ." In 1997, a place inspired Wall to create his next work, but this time his work would not be a backlit photograph, but a "photograph in iron," quoted Daniel Birnbaum in Artforum.
Discovered New Media
Commissioned by the Dutch government to create a monument for Rotterdam's Whilhelmina pier, Wall leapt into a new medium for his art-iron. And, he actually gathered trash—ropes, luggage, crates—and used them as pieces of the monument. "These discarded possessions bear witness to a specific moment," Birnbaum noted in Artforum. The intended effect of this specific moment was that he wanted people walking down the pier to "find themselves inside a completely artificial world, reminiscent of a stage set." And, once inside this world, they would be able to feel that they've discovered "some quite ordinary things that have been forgotten and the complex experience of relating to things from the past."
Also in the late 1990s, Wall, still maintaining his love for recreating reality through artification, stepped away from that artificial world and stepped into landscape photography. This photography became a "more personal … artistic adventure…" stated the Times (London). However, Wall's "devious intention" of making his landscapes look like snapshots continued his theme of artification even in these photographs. "I am interested in getting these pictures to look like they could have been snapshots, partly because that is the way photographs are expected to look," Wall told the Times (London). "Moreover, most very beautiful and successful photographs have looked that way."
Critically Praised and Rewarded
In 2002, Wall enjoyed critical success when he was awarded the Hassleblad Foundation International Award in Photography. With this recognition, the world was reminded that photography—whether it recreates history or reflects nature in a staged reality—is an important art medium. And, Wall's ability to "marry his high intentions with the easy accessibility of his chosen format … is real genius," hailed the Independent. However, Wall's technological genius is not the only quality that sets his photography apart from other art. As Time Canada writer Deborah Solomon suggested, it is his ability, his self-expression through his photography that makes it "hard to think of another living photographer whose work leaves us with so potent a record of how actual life actually feels."
Art in America, April 1996.
Artforum, May 1997.
ARTnews, November 1995.
Daily News, July 28, 1997.
Independent, March 19, 1996.
New Republic, April 28, 1997.
Time Canada, March 1, 1999.
Times (London), December 10, 2002. □