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Jeff Wall

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through August 20

Creating paradoxes around the issue of representation is a familiar modernist ploy. Jeff Wall's photos--18 of which are now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art--do more, because of his provocative subject matter; carefully constructed compositions, some of which are computer composites; and "commercial" method of display: his photographs are mounted as Cibachrome transparencies on light boxes, both undercutting our expectations of what we'll see in a museum or gallery and giving them an oddly disembodied feel. Wall's works draw us in the way mass-media images do, but by emphasizing conflict, miscommunication, and absurdity they aim to tell the truth, not convey a univocal message.

The Vampires' Picnic is 11 feet wide, a tableau of people in a forest who have punctured others' skin and are drinking their blood. This scene, which appears to be from some unwatchable grade-Z horror movie, seems completely out of place in a museum--but that's part of Wall's point. Such incongruities and displacements jar the complacent viewer into questioning what he sees. Wall does this partly by maintaining careful control over his "scenes." This one has been staged as carefully as a movie, with a diverse cast, artificial lighting, interesting clothing, and plenty of blood: Wall has even called himself a cinematographer. But a film would guide the audience through the scene, manipulating emotions, controlling our experience of the movie in space and time. In a way that cinema would make impossible, Wall's tableau almost begs the viewer to search the scene for meaning. But if there's any meaning here, it's in the contradictions.

The Vampires' Picnic also contains shocks and contradictions more subtle than its gory subject. A security guard at the left holds a pair of red high heels, and a nude man in the center, blood streaming from his neck, holds a green apple aloft almost triumphantly. The light-box display recalls commercial advertising, especially movie ads; but it also makes the blood oddly ethereal. No two characters are clothed or posed alike or wear the same facial expression, and there's no apparent narrative explanation for these differences. Wall the postmodernist knows that narratives left contradictory and unexplained are more engaging than those accounted for, but Wall the humorist makes a joke at postmodernism's expense: this unimaginably silly movie scene features characters who feed off each other just as postmodernists "appropriate" others' work.

Many of Wall's other images record tiny but unsettling disasters. A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) mimics a Hokusai print of papers blowing upward, but the differences between Hokusai's composition, a small copy of which is mounted near Wall's work, and Wall's photo are instructive. Hokusai's rural Japanese scene depicts natural, often curved forms: a winding road, a pond, Mount Fuji in the left background. Wall's center and right are occupied by an artificial reservoir; replacing Mount Fuji is a tall, institutional-looking apartment building. Plots of agricultural land occupy the left midground. All of Wall's forms are somewhat rectilinear yet seem oddly disparate: the building is out of focus; the reservoir is not as linear as it first appears, seeming to curve in the distance. This landscape, just outside Vancouver, British Columbia (where Wall was born and still lives), seems an amalgam of artificial forms as diverse as his various vampires. But at the photo's center, rectangular shapes are returned to a state of nature. A stream of papers from a businessman's folder soars up into the sky, mixing chaotically with leaves from a nearby tree. A second "suit" watches helplessly, while two blue-collar men are oblivious, holding on to their hats. There's a hint of class difference, yet Wall's image suggests a parity between the two classes. A careful observer of diverse types, Wall told me, "When I do a picture, I do some sociology. I'm looking at how people really dress."

Wall, an art professor as well as an artist, gives us a scene more calculated than it seems at first. Once again the image recalls advertising photos--and in fact Sudden Gust is a computer-created digital composite, in this case compiled from pieces of some 50 photos taken in the same locale over a year. That fact extends Wall's paradoxes to his own methods: he uses highly manipulative means to produce a picture that, at first glance, seems to record an actual event.

To the experienced art viewer this might seem a familiar brew: bringing unexpected images or objects into the gallery and including contradictory elements within the work. The usual goal is an aesthetic experience of opposites conveying the message that there are no easy answers and that making an image is itself a paradoxical act. But Wall adds to this mix meaningful content; without abandoning paradox, he makes statements about our world. The mismatched rectilinear, man-made forms of A Sudden Gust and the way the wind draws from one of them, the folder, a disordered stream of papers mixed with leaves suggest that Wall questions the stability of modern alterations to the land.

Wall has called himself a prose poet, but he could just as easily call himself a painter: his images, even displayed as transparencies, have a lush detail that puts flesh on the intellectual substructure of his work. The horizon in Coastal Motifs, where mountains meet clouds, is a dense, lush mixture of light filtered through clouds and mist; the fluorescent light coming from behind makes the cloud-light both infinitely various and utterly dematerialized. The coast below, a mixture of docks and mounds of lumber and other materials ready for shipment, seems an entirely different world--until one starts to realize that the logs and heaps of ore and salt stacked by the docks probably came from the mountains.

Ultimately the incongruities in Wall's work, whether of subject matter, composition, or manner of display, don't result in a fragmented, essentially paradoxical vision of an unknowable, unchangeable world. Instead they combine to suggest hidden connections, to make statements, perhaps pointing the way ever so subtly to a better future or suggesting the difficulty of communicating across barriers. The light boxes play an important role: they make the images independent of uneven gallery lighting, and the bright backlighting tends to make every part of the composition equally important--there isn't as much contrast between light and dark areas as there would be in a paper print. If the compositions are riven, Wall seems to be saying, it's not because of the light but because the diverse subjects are fundamentally incompatible.

Some of Wall's images seem metaphors for the process of viewing his work. Untangling shows a big mess of ropes of all sizes and colors in a machinery shop, which an unhappy-looking man is trying to untangle. The placement of the ropes at the center of the image invites the viewer to participate, to also try to find a way to finish the job, but it looks very hard to do, just as Wall's multiple connections are difficult to unravel. The subject of Restoration is a 19th-century mural in a round building in Lucerne, Switzerland--a precinematic panorama of retreating armies of the sort originally marketed as enveloping substitutes for the place depicted. Though Wall's images are not curved, their commanding light and often large scale seem to similarly envelop the viewer.

Yet most of Wall's compositions are split, broken into areas that don't resemble each other formally, peopled by actors who live in separate worlds, also distancing the viewer from the scene. Behind the ropes in Untangling another man seems to be looking for something on a shelf. Illuminated by a ceiling fluorescent light, he shines almost as brightly and certainly more noticeably, because of the higher contrast of light, than the man untangling the ropes. Each man's work seems important, and the complex composition and backlit display almost ennoble them. But like most of Wall's figures, they look in different directions, don't communicate, remain apart. A similar feeling of estrangement haunts A Fight on the Sidewalk, which shows two men grappling on the pavement while a third looks on. Like this lone, passive spectator, we're separated from the action by an uncrossable gulf.

The gulf in Insomnia is frightening. A man with a sweaty brow and crazed eyes lies under a table in a somewhat seedy, 50s-style kitchen. It's night, and though there is a window, what we mainly see in it is a reflection of the overhead light fixture, further entrapping us in the room. Objects are arranged according to a photostylist's overly ordered idea of "messy": a lone ashtray, a crumpled paper bag atop the refrigerator, a single saltshaker on the table. The man's crazed, self-absorbed look suggests he's locked in a tormented world, cut off even from his sparse surroundings. The stick of butter on the stove, the dish towel draped over the back of a chair, are records of ordinary human actions, some completed and some not, a kind of map of the man's immediate past. Such details are oddly suggestive --one kitchen cabinet is closed, the other a bit ajar--as if each were an only partly translatable hieroglyph, a sign of whatever path led the man to his present agonized state.

Wall often takes risks, pushing up to some border of grotesqueness or pictorialism or sentimentality on the other side of which lies truly bad art. The subject of Jello--two forlorn young girls--is potentially cloying. We're in a kitchen again, this one more modern; a fluorescent light over the stove and another light inside a cabinet of crystal glasses remind us that interior decorating is a form of display parallel to the light box. There's a large plate of yellow Jell-O by the sink; one girl holds a bowl of it, while the other, sitting on the floor, holds pieces of Jell-O in her hand. On the counter and floor near the seated girl are clumps of spilled Jell-O.

I know of no other work of art in which spilled food is so moving. All is not well in this perfectly decorated kitchen: the girls are alone; the one on the floor seems unable even to eat. Yet on the right wall two children's drawings are proudly mounted: this is not a loveless home, perhaps just a busy one. The out-of-sync element--the spilled Jell-O--is kin to the other visual disparities in Wall's images, each of which suggests a problem in an apparently perfectly ordered universe. Wall reminds us that the intellectual contradictions between different people, different classes, between humans and nature, between representation and illusion can also register as human emotion--in the agonized face of the man in Insomnia, or in the bored, distracted faces of these two isolated little girls. Their loneliness is the loneliness inherent in Wall's vision of modern life, in which nothing ever quite adds up.

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