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Jeff Wall: The Return of the Modern? (a Review)

Laurie Rojas

Platypus Review 2 | February 2008

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One of the highlight exhibitions of the summer of 2007 in Chicago was The Art Institute’s retrospective exhibition on the work of Jeff Wall. This occasion marked the first time that the Art Institute exhibited a solo show of a photographer. Jeff Wall’s large-scale color transparencies, mounted in light boxes, covered the same walls that have previously displayed Rembrandts, Girodets, and Manets. The exhibition provided the opportunity to reconsider the present condition of photography as art.

Predestined for extensive art historical consumption and critique, Wall’s work is characterized by a significant use of cinematic, literary, and art historical references. Following Baudelaire’s notion of “painting of modern life” and 19th century pictorial practices, his work is an attempt to redeem the task of modernism through photography. This historically motivated attempt seeks to recover photography from the detour promoted by postmodern art and criticism that emerged in the late 1960’s. As a result, Wall works through the possibilities available in the medium of photography as a response to the historical turn against modern art that still exists today under the broad banner of ‘conceptual art.’

In conceptual art practices that emerged in the 70’s photography lost its specificity as a medium and abandoned its identity as a historical or aesthetic object. Instead, photography began to be treated as a theoretical object, that is, as a means to critique formalism, representation, originality, and, notably, the claims made in favor of the autonomous work of art. This marked a refusal of everything that art practices in the mid 19th century had opened up.

Wall’s earlier photographs, the now canonical Destroyed Room, and Picture for Women, demonstrate how his work encapsulates a response to the ‘photographic legacy of conceptual art’ by alluding to a multitude of work in the history of modernism. By 1978-79, Wall reintroduces historical discourse back into art photographic practices through carefully planned and highly staged photographs that recall for example, Eugène Delacroix’s 1827 painting, Death of Sardanapalus. By recalling Delacroix’s highly composed history painting, Wall links himself to a long-standing tradition of art concerned with history.

During the 17th, 18th , and 19th centuries, history painting stood as the dominant form of academic painting. Traditionally, the subjects of history painting would cover ancient mythology, Greco-Roman history, literary and biblical subjects, but in the late 18th century modern historical subjects, current events and figures in contemporary dress, were introduced. Paintings by Jacques-Louis David depicted contemporary events of the French Revolution throughout their immediate unfolding. In the middle of the 19th century, during the rise of modernism, the traditional subjects of the paintings were replaced by commoners mired in their everyday activities. In the work of Eduard Manet, referenced by Wall in Pictures for Women, the subjects confront the beholder by returning the gaze, creating an uncomfortable tension between the beholder and the work of art. In this way, the viewer confronted by the expectation of the object is implicated as the subject of the work.

Many of Wall's photographs carry a resemblance to, or at least an echo of nineteenth-century painting. The imagery in Walls’s 1993 photograph, Restoration, is not clearly discernible from afar, and yet by standing a few feet away, one gets the momentary impression of standing within the spatial boundaries of the depicted architectural space. This impression is typical of many of Wall’s monumental photographs, but in Restoration, this effect is overtly pronounced by the scale (over sixteen feet long), the position of the camera, and the distortion produced by the wide angle of the lens. In approaching the image one begins to notice the painted landscape in the background covering a cylindrical wall that extends throughout the four corners of the photograph. The scale of this wall changes drastically, objects and individuals are much smaller towards the center of the image and function as indicators of the depth of the space. Restoration slowly reveals itself to be a photograph taken inside a panorama depicting a scene of a snow-covered town surrounded by mountains with soldiers in a field.

Panoramas emerged in the middle of the 19th century as a popular form of public attraction and entertainment satisfying a desire for an overall fictional and illusory experience. Visitors to a panorama were not deceived, but rather suspended their disbelief in order to contemplate the scene surrounding them.

The Wall photograph presents a product in high demand during the nineteenth-century, the history painting rendered as panorama. Painted in Lucerne by Edouard Castres, the Bourbaki Panorama is dated from 1881, and portrays French troops under the command of General Bourbaki. The troops depicted had been granted internment in Switzerland after the defeat of the French during the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71). During this period, a new international law had established that foreign troops could find refuge on neutral ground under the conditions that they relinquish their arms in order to be stationed in camps until the end of the war. In Switzerland's case the authorities allowed General Bourbaki’s troops to cross the border at Les Verrières near Neuchâtel. The troops were to remain in Switzerland until a formal cease-fire would allow their release. Most importantly, the defeat of the French brought about the end of the French Second Empire, the reign of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, and resulted in the unification of the German Empire that would last until World War I.

Throughout the surface of this historical imagery lie small rectangular strips of paper indicating the incomplete task of the restoration process. This process was an attempt to remove over 100 years of material accumulated on the surface of the panorama, aiming to provide the clearest presentation of the work by bringing it closer to its original conception. The restoration of any work of art requires intensive, time-consuming, and meticulous labor, with the purpose of allowing future generations the possibility of experiencing the object from a past historical period anew.

Some might see Wall’s work as merely a rehearsal of old themes, as pastiche, or even as regression. And yet, if it is a manifestation of regression, this might say more about the present inability of art to move forward, to progress beyond its current limitations. However, Wall’s work is at least a re-opening of an art historical discourse that had been lost in conceptual art’s use of photography. These reminders of art’s past: the references to 19th century panoramas, history and realist painting, provoke an understanding of Wall’s work, even at a surface level, that seeks to be part of the historical development of art.

Contemporary art photography practices have yet to work through the medium-specific possibilities of photography as art, i.e., as an end in itself. It has yet to properly ask the question, what makes a photograph art? What makes a photograph more than mere representation? In other words, it has yet to ask the most difficult question of all: what makes art modern? |P

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