Whitehot Magazine

January 2008, Jeff Wall @ White Cube

Jeff Wall, Tenants, 2007 transparency in
lightbox courtesy White Cube, London

Jeff Wall
27-Nov / 19-Jan
White Cube
Mason’s Yard

Giovanni Aloi, WM London

Jeff Wall has over the years built an international reputation for his large size backlit transparencies in light-boxes. Through this medium Wall has forged a sophisticated photographic language borrowing from the syntax of the cinematic screen and the tradition of tableau photography alike.
The show at White Cube, one of the most influential commercial galleries in London, presents Jeff Wall’s trademark images in the upstairs gallery and a less conventional selection of images in the lower ground space. The exhibition presents work of stark documentaristic nature, at least apparently, as we know that Wall is notorious for the staging of events that appear to be casually glanced-at scenes; although the labour and skill involved in constructing these scenes is enormous, the achieved result is closely related to the photographic genre of snapshot. The selection of images on show captures the improbable presence of beauty in mundane subjects: builders gutting an inner city hotel for renovation (Hotels, Carrall Street, Vancouver); four people in a cluttered rural building slaughtering chickens and preparing them for the market (Dressing Poultry).

Jeff Wall, Dressing Poultry, 2007 transparency in lightbox courtesy White Cube, London

The images exhibited on the lower ground space present somewhat of a departure from Wall’s normally methodical working style. The spacious lower gallery is entirely dedicated to large size black and white work. Still loyal to the documentaristic approach seen upstairs, these silver gelatin prints trade the usual eye-catching quality of light boxes in favour of a much more abrasive presence as Wall measures himself with the theme of contemporary social commentary.
The selection of 6 images presented here are taken from Jeff Wall’s new photography book: ‘Black and White Photographs: 1996-2007’, published by White Cube. The volume collects all of Wall’s monochrome work to date. The largest of the new black and white photographs depicts a group of casual labourers clustered together at a gathering point beneath an expansive winter sky (Man Waiting). The ‘wait’, in this instance could be intended in physical terms: these men may be waiting for a working opportunity; or symbolic: they are at same time waiting for a better quality of life that may not concretise in the near future. Another, Tenants, shows a moment of everyday life in a suburban social housing project. Here Wall captures the essence of the uneventful and repetitive atmosphere of America’s poor social reality. In War Game, a group of boys turn an empty lot into a field of imaginary battle – a game set in the midst of poverty, counterparted by the presence
of a flowering tree in the background.

Jeff Wall, War Game, 2007 transparency in lightbox courtesy White Cube, London

Jeff Wall, Men Waiting, 2007 transparency in lightbox courtesy White Cube, London

In contrast with the rest of the body of work on show, we also find two close-ups of rocks. Rock Surface 1&2, exhibited next to each other, stand in clear opposition to the rest of the photographs but also to Jeff Wall’s established trademark style. These essentially are textural explorations bordering on abstraction, something far from groundbreaking or new; many a photographer, has at some stage of their career, experimented with extreme close-ups and cropping to abstract subjects. But it is within the broader context of Wall’s highly staged photography that the simplicity of this pair strikes a resonant chord.
On a similar note, for those who appreciate the extended looking time typical of art appreciation involved with the viewing of Wall’s exhibitions, there is a rewarding surprise waiting on the way out. ‘Hidden’ in the ground floor lobby, invisible from the main gallery space, is a small wonder, a small light-box almost casually hung on the wall. Shop Window, Rome has nothing more to offer than what the title claims, but it does so in a disarmingly simple way, bringing little girls’ clothes on baby-mannequins to the sophisticated and slick space of the art gallery. Distancing itself from the harsh realism of the black and white exhibit, this ‘quieter’ colour-work speaks of the ‘theory-aware’ Jeff Wall, a photographer who has always demonstrated a detailed comprehension of how images work and are constructed. Ultimately, this is an exhibition in a commercial space and Wall, choosing this image to end the show, seems to remind us about this specific context.

Giovanni Aloi

 Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He has curated art projects involving photography and the moving image is a BBC radio contributor, and his work has been translated into many languages. Aloi is Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture www.antennae.org.uk.

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