291 stupidly missed the Jeff Wall retrospective when it passed through MoMA last year. So you can imagine my excitement when I saw that, as a part of my holiday travels to London, I’d have the chance to see both Jeff Wall and White Cube, Mason’s Yard at the same time–Wall’s show at White Cube runs through January 19.
My initial excitement quickly turned to disappointment. White Cube is an interesting building in a wonderful location, all on its own in the center of a cul-de-sac in the otherwise crowded area around St. James’s. Its contemporary look is offset by the more traditional buildings around it, and it really feels like its own little world.
The show, however, was a bit of a bust. There’s some of Wall’s standard genre–constructed shots that feel like traditional snapshots or documentary work, the sort of photography that he popularized and that popularized him. But also, thrown in somewhat haphazardly, are works that White Cube describes as “documentary photographs of unoccupied places”–read “dull shots of empty spaces”–and, in a sort of astonishing reversal, several pictures that “[capture] the improbable presence of beauty in mundane subjects.” A more concise statement of the cliché that has driven the bulk of “fine-art photography” (and made so much of it redundant) since the early 20th century would be impossible. To hear it used to describe the work of Jeff Wall, whose photography has deconstructed those concepts for the past thirty years, is a sort of macabre experience.
Looking beyond the words (shudder) to the work itself, the show was mixed. All the pictures are displayed at the grand scale common to much of contemporary photography, with some prints and some light boxes. His more constructed images are best, with “War game” a natural favorite. It’s a beautiful photograph showing a group of boys using a barren junk lot to stage an imaginary war. While it’s tempting to interpret the photograph as some poignant statement about the corruption of children by the horrors of modern warfare (see the Guardian’s write-up here), it’s actually a more complicated image that seems to posit something inherently human, or at least masculine, in the desire to stage conflict and even violence.
I hesitate to call–as White Cube does–a single photograph “documentary.” The term seems to me to involve a lengthier project. A photograph can certainly function as a document or be used for evidentiary purposes, but “documentary” seems to require a more in-depth exploration and context than a single photograph can provide. Nevertheless, Wall’s “documentary” photograph “Dressing poultry,” which depicts a number of workers jocundly preparing chicken carcasses for market, is a wonderful image in the same vein as “War game.” You could read it as either amusing or savage, the way these workers laugh among the slaughter. I thought it was wonderful; regardless, it’s an image that moves you.
Wall’s “documentary photographs of unoccupied places,” and his other unpeopled pictures in the show, don’t really merit a second glance. I only hope that’s not the direction his work is moving in or, if it is, that there exists some sort of beauty or intelligence in the photographs that–for all their size and all my straining–I couldn’t see.