Jeff Wall’s new photos are characteristically cinematic, but the script feels a little thin

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Jeff Wall's work is at Marian Goodman Gallery through Jan. 7. ()
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Jeff Wall’s new photographs are unremarkable. But this is a good thing, since Wall is at his best when giving a masterful turn to apparently mundane content. A sensational subject would be cause for alarm.

At Wall’s new exhibit at Marian Goodman Gallery, true to form, the Canadian artist maintains a preference for technically tight, oversize images of ordinary happenings: a man gets wet; a boy falls from a tree; a man reads a document. Yet while in the past his tableaux were packed with activity and characters, in most of the new work in this show there’re far fewer people and really, not much happening at all.

Wall has never been one for high drama. Compared to contemporaries, like Gregory Crewdson, who works in similar fictional modes of photography, and on a similarly large scale, often uses elaborate sets and hired performers, and digitally manipulates his pictures to create dramatic, surreal, and messy montages, Wall’s photographs, if they weren’t six by eight feet, might be confused for snapshots.

The photos feel like a chef’s tasting of forms and themes Wall has worked with in the past: narrative and, more recently, documentary photographs; color and black-and-white; large-scale and smaller photos; landscapes and portraits. There are no transparencies or light boxes, for which he is perhaps best known, in the mix. Yet despite lack of consistency in terms of size, theme, or subject, there is something distinctly “Wallish” about each of the works; his particular brand of tension. And he brings it about in a variety of ways.

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Wall never studied photography. He received a degree in fine arts at the University of British Columbia in the sixties and later studied art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Given such a background, it made sense that his early work, like 1978’s Destroyed Room heavily referenced paintings by 19th-century masters, and he has continued to be preoccupied with the techniques and issues that were historically the province of painting: narrative scenes, scenes of everyday life, large portraits, and direct pictorial references to masterworks. Young Man Wet with Rain (2011) is a life-size full-length black-and-white portrait that one approaches and absorbs as one would a large Velázquez: as with much 17th-century portraiture, the young man’s body is slightly turned away from us. Missing, of course, are the great ruffles and pedigreed dogs that accompany Velázquez’s subjects, as well as any shred of noble bearing; this one wears baggy jeans, looks as though he’s been soaked in a rain shower, and has the slumped shoulders and downward gaze of a man down on his luck. Encountering this suffering and disenfranchised (perhaps homeless) person, particularly in a gallery setting, elicits a familiar apprehension but also highlights Wall’s investigation here into class. The outcast is a seasoned character type for Wall, appearing in works like Doorpusher (1984), and quite possibly his most well-known work, Milk (1984). In this case, the tension is further charged by the incongruity between what we expect from portraiture—the eye contact, the fine clothes, the calm pose—and what we get—the sullen, scrappy subject who might demand something of you.

More moneyed settings appear in the images at the other end of the room as if to accentuate the encounter with class. One large print shows a man (a costume historian, says the accompanying text) giving a lecture while a woman in period dress stands at his side—she appears to have stepped right out of a painting by Georges Seurat. And while the image is playing with perspective and depth of field (via the mirrored doors behind the two principal figures), a technique that has lent much texture and complexity to Wall’s work, the lighting here is flat, diffusing narrative tension and mystery, rather than creating it through the dramatic illlumination Wall does so well. But what the image lacks in narrative tension it gains in the sensation that these characters are in suspended animation (with the woman leaning on a thin umbrella, and the man leaning in the other direction); still, the characters convey little narrative beyond a simple one of class—in the lavish surroundings, these characters seem to be at a lecture that is the sole province of the ladies who lunch. Though a small audience is reflected in the mirrored doors, nothing about the piece inspires you to take a closer look.

The glory and strength in Wall’s earlier work was its deceptive simplicty. Here were these massive snapshots, but look closer (and you wanted to look closer, always) and an entire narrative unfolded. He is in part responsible (along with peers like Cindy Sherman and Andreas Gursky) for changing the way we view and consume photography. Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986), from 1992, is a grotesque depiction of a group of massacred Russian soldiers on a battlefield in Afghanistan talking jovially with one another and poking fun at (or simply poking at) their mortal wounds. One of Wall’s “cinematographic photographs,” as he calls them, the image engaged over fifteen actors in a complex, visually stunning, and darkly humorous staging that, again, evoked the history paintings of Goya, Titian, or Eugène Delacroix. Stand back far enough and it’s a grisly battle document, move closer and a whole story appears. And yet, while all the works in this show contain intriguing details that bear some scrutiny, they seem more limited than they ought to be, more resistant to deep looking. Each of the photographs in this show, according to Wall, presented a unique technical challenge that he had never faced before. Boy falls from tree (2010) is rather self-explanatory in its technical challenge. And indeed, there is the boy, falling.

“Capturing a free fall is very difficult,” Wall told Capital New York at the exhibit’s opening last week. “Objects accelerate very quickly. Gravity is a powerful force. I didn’t want it to be blurred. In order to do that, it took time. It’s all very prosaic.” Wall was soft-spoken and thoughtful. Yet his use of the word “prosaic” imparted the sense that he saw himself as doing nothing more special than the work of a mathematician. Find a problem, develop an equation, and solve it. And in Boy falls from tree there is a tension, but really a more prosaic one at that: Will the boy die? Will he get a broken leg? And yet the trickiness of the image, the how’d-he-do-that feel, is distracting, and ultimately unsatisfying. Contrast this with the more cramped patchy yard and its tattooed denizens in Tattoos and Shadows (2000) where it’s things like closed eyes, sitting positions, the man reading that start to spin out a larger narrative. You could come up with a whole story about any of the three people in the frame. But the boy? Well, he is falling out of a tree. Still, however prosaic he found his technical approach in these photographs, for Wall the tensions in his work were very much alive.

“I think this picture began from a childhood memory,” Wall said. “Falling out of a tree. And I have no idea why I thought of it at the time. I found the garden, and the neighbor came over with their little boy, and they were curious what we were doing. And I ended up hiring him. He lives two houses away.” Wall paused for a moment in thought. “Every time the boy fell, he was scared. He never got used to it.”

Wall himself never seems to get used to any one mode of working, or to get too comfortable with himself. Perhaps that’s why he’s garnered a reputation for never quite repeating himself. While these images as a whole are flatter and somewhat more desultory in thematic concern than previous images and groups of images, they reflect the continued compulsion to convey moments of suspended motion that ask questions of the viewer. The questions this time seemed less urgent, and less numerous than they have in the past, but the real question might be what comes after this.