Unlike the large scale works of other photographers like Andreas Gursky and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, I am not aware of having seen any of Jeff Wall’s enormous pictures before, apart from as reproductions in books. So the first thing that struck me about the six pictures – one triptych and five singles – exhibited in the large upstairs space at the Marian Goodman Gallery was their sheer size!
I made a quick first lap of the show, going round the room anticlockwise and then slowed down and had a closer second look. In the order IO saw them, they are:
- Property Line: 2 surveyors with instruments laying out a staight line, small in the middle of the vastness of a (presumably western US) desert. A dirt track runs away from the left to the right and in the distance there are two or three grubby brown hills or possibly mountains. The sky which takes up about half of the picture is incredibly blue and the high-vis jackets the surveyors are wearing and the shocking pink of their marker flags stand out against the more muted colours of scrub and dirt of the land land.
- Listener: A topless man kneels in a drainage ditch. He is pale, blond, bearded and slightly flabby; his eyes are half shut in a way that suggests he is dazed in some way. On all sides of him there are men dressed in dark clothes; their faces aren’t quite visible and there is a strong feeling of threat. One of the standing men is cut off sharply by the frame at the top left; the eye we can see is staring off out of frame.
- The Mask Maker: A black man wearing a crimson hoody and olive trousers is using the window of a closed shop as a mirror as he draws patterns on a white domino mask. It does not seem likely that he is going to a masked ball, He is left handed and a carrier bag hangs from his right hand as he holds onto the ornamental ironwork that separates him from the window. The street slopes back from the right to left and behind the man is a soft-focus graffito of another man in a mask: Marvel’s Iron Man (I think).
- Changing Room: A woman is caught with a vividly patterned dress (zebra and snakeskin and eastern abstract designs mix together in a way that made me think “dazzle ship”; it seems to have a hood and could be some form of hijab-style full length coverall) over her head and torso. Below it there is the red and white floral skirt of a knee length dress, identical to another hanging up on the rail of the changing room. Either she is taking the patterned cover off or putting it on. Since there is no reason to have tried on the dress and then covered it up, I assume she is putting it on: is she going to steal the dress? She is wearing heels. The tip of one of her feet is cut off by the bottom of the frame. Behind her is the changing room curtain and there is a pile of grey cloth and a patterned handbag between her and the second dress. Everything is in focus and – unless it’s a huge cubicle – we are in an impossible position looking at her. This is the one I like best.
- Approach: Black and white; a black woman approaches a cardboard structure in front of the concrete wall of an underpass. She is barefoot and wrapped in a blanket. Under the cardboard you can see a foot – is someone sleeping there? There is a dog’s bowl in a topless cardboard box next to the shelter; two shopping trolleys wait by the concrete wall which again falls away diagonally across the frame, from left to right this time.
- Staircase and Two Rooms: The interior of what appears to be a seedy hotel or boarding house. Again there is a receding left-right diagonal of wall but this time it is common to all three pictures. This helps hold them together into some sense of a single place. The first panel shows a half-open door (number 18) and a partially hidden white man in a dressing gown looking out and slightly down. The middle panel at first sight seems to show half of the same door (but shut this time) or the door next to it, running down the left side of the frame, something reinforced by the way the dirty pink wall of the corridor seems to carry on naturally from the picture to its left. However the door is numbered 15, so could even be on the other side of the corridor and be what the man is looking at. Stairs run up in the right of the frame and beyond them there is a narrow unnumbered door. A well used flypaper hangs from the ceiling. The third panel shows a room interior. A black man lies on a colourful eiderdown which stretches out beyond the bottom of the frame. He could be watching a TV somewhere off to the right. There is something “wrong” about the perspective in this third picture. A mirror on the left wall shows one of his legs, a bit of dressing gown and some of the counterpane but that doesn’t quite seem right. The angles made by the floor, walls and ceiling in the far corner seem exaggerated.
(The links above all lead to installation views of the framed prints on the gallery site. They show photographs of the photographs as it were, rather than the photographs themselves. I suspect this has significance.)
The pictures don’t have an immediately obvious uniting theme or stylistic link: there is the receding wall motif in three of them, but that’s about it. They go from the claustrophobic crampedness of Changing Room to the expansiveness of Property Line; the four made this year (the triptych and Approach are older, dating from 2014) are inkjet prints, Staircase and Two Rooms is made of three digital-C prints, Approach is a (huge) silver gelatin black and white print. Changing Room is full of rectangles; property line has more triangles (the two surveyors, the GPS tripod, the three hills, the scrubby bushes, a prominent patch of wet mud in the centre of the track) the more you look at it.
But, as you stare at the pictures, you begin to realise that there is something (a different something) about each of them that leaves you feeling uneasy, somehow (the perspective in the triptych, the impossibility of your location in Changing Room and the flatness of the image, the centrality of the composition of Property Line). You realise that all of them have something that bleeds out over the edge of the frame – a bit of someone’s body, an oblique gaze, the line of the hills in Property Line. Then you start wondering what’s going on, what’s happening here and who are these people? You begin to make up stories, extrapolating from the information you’re given directly by the picture. You form narrative scenarios – the woman stealing the dress; the man at the door hearing the TV in the other room; the kneeling man waiting for some ritual, or is it a punishment beating? They draw you in and you look and stare and you wonder. This is – while unsettling – fun. Time passes before the pictures. We like stories.
You also start to wonder how the pictures were made. I assume that the interiors are 3-walled sets, but is the central image of the triptych – the stairs – a small scale model? Is the landscape being surveyed a composite? And it doesn’t matter, because ultimately it’s a nice space to spend an hour or so during lunch, looking and thinking and making up stories for yourself based on the evidence laid out in front of you.
Afterwards, walking back to work up Kingly Street, I became hugely aware of the dramas and scenarios playing out around me in a way that felt much more real and full of photographic possibilities than it had during my two street shoots. It didn’t seem necessary to take anything more than a couple of aide-memoire-type snaps on my phone and to remember what it felt like walking through the narrow precinct and what the people there looked like, smoking and using their phones. It will come in handy later, maybe.
And then, on the tube on the way home in the evening I was reading Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and started thinking about how exactly the same exhibition is on in the New York branch of Marian Goodman and how the literature in the gallery had noted that all the pictures were in an edition of 4 (+ an Artist’s Proof) and how that, along with the sheer scale of the pictures attempted to reestablish a sense of aura to the pictures. And then I read the point where Benjamin discusses Atget’s people-less pictures of Paris (Benjamin; 14) – “They unsettle the viewer; he feels obliged to find a specific way of approaching them” – and realised that that was pretty much what Wall’s pictures had done to me.
- Exhibition Site: http://mariangoodman.com/exhibition/2443/selected-works (all links accessed 18th December 2015).
- Penguin Great Ideas #56: The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction – Walter Benjamin, tr. J A Underwood (Penguin Books, 2008)