Canada House Gallery, Pall Mall East Entrance, Trafalgar Square, SW1Y 5BJ
© 2015 Hauser & Wirth.
“Most photographs cannot get looked at very often” Wall comments “they get exhausted”. The traditional 8 by 10ins size fits cosily around prints in books, but “it’s too shrunken, too compressed”. So, although Wall's life-size pictures often lie there flat on the screen, not answering back, they are prepared to hold a conversation with anyone who has the patience to look at what is (or is not) there. Art on his scale engages the viewer afresh: you can walk up to it, move around and away and back again.
Wall calls his large-scale photographs ‘prose poems’ (a style of writing associated with Charles Baudelaire), wanting the viewer to experience, even savour, a picture rather than fathom what it is about. It’s quite hard to do.Our eyes are used to raking over pictures as news items or part of a narrative thread. School children are given a picture at random and asked to write a story. What happens if there isn't one?
Here we have a well-dressed woman in a formal two-piece, pencil skirt ending mid-calf, high heeled shoes and matching shoulder bag. The woman is in fact the artist’s wife, Jeanette. She is turned away fom us and her sleek head obscures some catalogue pages. The heavy furniture and high ceiling compete for our attention, as does the heavily patterned carpet. She is in a world with its own internal logic: hushed voices, glossy pages and soft footsteps. Through the window we glimpse (when looking at the original size on show at Canada House Gallery) a black London taxi shooting past, bringing into the room noise and movement we cannot hear or see.
Jeanette is many things: a model and a wife; a potential buyer of art browsing through the catalogues and a figure in a work which one day will itself be offered for sale in a catalogue; an agent in the world making choices as well as an actor in a staged context.
In Boy falls from tree there is a 'story' but one without resolution. It's set in a quiet suburban garden, with a swing at rest, a ball idle in the grass, nothing happening – except for a spread-eagled youngster who might or might not catch at the rope or crash- land on his head. After the first shock we remind ourselves of digitalisation. Most things are possible. When Yves Klein made his unforgettable Leap Into The Void (see Blog 45 on Ciprian Muresan) he had to use collage. Now photographs can be stretched, stitched, compressed, edited and excised.
Jeff Wall has the gift of paying genuine attention to his subjects, without condescension or sentimentality. Educated as an art historian, he has aspired to make photographs that can be constructed and experienced the way paintings are. Family snaps in family albums can never be the same.