White Cube Masons Yard
Written June 2022.
Installation view of Pawnshop (2009) © Jeff Wall and White Cube. All rights reserved.
Perhaps it is work, that is the one word, concept and theme which embodies and unifies the photographic output of Vancouver native, Jeff Wall. Work in the sense of exploring how humans themselves actually work— examining their intricacies, their intimacies, insecurities and psychologies, by way of large-scale, cinematic, uncanny and highly-staged images in the photographic tableaux tradition nearly as old as photography itself. But also in the way that humans work— how we construct, ensnare, produce and preserve as mammals, for our entertainment, protection, survival and sustenance, both now and in times far gone; in the case of Wall, usually by way of merging the worlds of documentary and street photography, all with the overindulgent scale and detail of a large format camera. Despite the breadth of his catalogue, with many of his works seeming aeons away from one another creatively— for example, the subtle and stoic Men move an engine (2008), nothing close to the excruciating intensity of the famed, Insomnia (1994), or the documentary-tinged Pair of Interiors (2018), some artistic difference from the near perplexing, Concrete Ball (2002), it is his pursuit of understanding humans by way of work, working and workings, which seems to bind his catalogue as one.
Trap set (2021) © Jeff Wall and White Cube. All rights reserved.
For his solo exhibition at White Cube’s Mason's Yard, Wall presents to audiences a selection of artwork created over the past twenty years, all the while with the scale, breadth and creative grandeur which has kept his name effortlessly relevant as far as contemporary art and photography are concerned, for over fifty years. Each of the fourteen images that hang on the gallery walls dominates and invites with ease: the ground floor, comprised mostly of human-devoid images, both urban and rural. Trap set (2021), with its declarative title and riparian view, has a subtle framing and low lighting, letting the wooden device alluded to in the title, almost blend in as a natural part of the view. Burrow (2004) on the other hand, is foreboding— unsettling for reasons hard to place, no doubt a feeling amplified by its lack of colour, but also the realisation of a makeshift bunker on what appears to be an industrial site. While Pawnshop (2009) could be argued to be the most typically Jeff Wall image the room has to offer, Fortified door (2007) could be argued to be the least— a detail shot of a large door, its European-style elegance seeming out of place, its importance unclear, finished with a peculiar framing.
Stepping down into the lower ground floor however, is where the exhibition takes a more emotive, perhaps voyeuristic turn, and while some newer works such as Actor in two roles (2020)— a diptych across two panels (at 250 x 349.9cm each), works with the quasi film director vantage point which makes his work so recognisable, others such as Sunseeker (2021) (at 121.8 x 139.6cm) work smaller, directly and arguably contemporarily, breaking away from the tradition of European portraiture so frequently referenced in his work, and even in the neighbouring Man at a mirror (2019). Wall, even after half a decade of creating, is continually pushing forwards— a point exemplified by the diversity of his subjects themselves, but also in the diversity of framing in his images, Mask maker (2015) serving as another particularly relevant example of this, a side-on image with the candidness of an Instagram snapshot. Yet third-person, fly-on-the-wall showstoppers are there, making their mark— Event (2020) with its impending conflict, created like many others from a memory of an observed event, Band & crowd (2011), the largest and most ambitious work in the show, with so much realism in its intricate orchestration that it alone deserves a good five minutes to experience, and A woman with a necklace (2021)— a meeting point between delicacy and opulence, with a well-dressed subject reclining in a smart-looking room, her torso swallowed by shadows, a product of Wall’s personal musings on his childhood home and life.
Event (2004) © Jeff Wall and White Cube. All rights reserved.
If there is anything to be taken away from Wall’s solo exhibition, it’s the fact that he does indeed exist as more than a mere photographer or artist— a social psychoanalyst; a pursuer of a greater understanding of how people work; the cogs and gears within humanity and perhaps society too. At seventy five, his dedication to learning and creating is alive as ever, growing as he does: moving, bemusing, infuriating and relating us to one another, one image at a time.