Connoisseur of Chaos

John Haber
in New York City

A. A violent order is disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)

      — Wallace Stevens, "Connoisseur of Chaos"

Jeff Wall

For the first time since reopening in a six-story tower, the Museum of Modern Art gives over its principal exhibition space to a photographer. Someone had better let the space know. A sign by the entrance sounds the warning: No Photography.

However, the sign makes perfect sense. Whatever you thought you were doing with your cell phone, it does not belong here. Jeff Well's Picture for Women (collection of the artist, 1979)

Jeff Wall does not play tourist, he does not travel to exotic climates, and he does not care to let one know where he has gone. He does seek out beauty—not even in a museum. Above all, he does not take snapshots, and he works so slowly that he needs only forty photos to cover as many years in a career. He does not shoot away at whatever lies before him, not without setting the scene for a very long time. He attends to every detail and every prop. I almost looked behind me, to see if he had placed the sign, hired the other visitors, told them exactly when and how to move, and begun another work.

No photography permitted

It makes sense, too, that MoMA has turned to Jeff Wall. The museum incorporated photography and film departments early in its life. Since its 2004 reopening, those departments have exhibited photographs of meticulously constructed spaces by Thomas Demand. Wall, the first boomer to appear upstairs, also belongs to the generation that cracked the division between photography galleries and art galleries. However, if he does not take snapshots, he also does not resemble either traditional art photography or even the new kind.

He does not find the perfect moment or the picturesque. He does not create symmetry, lyricism, formal perfection, or anything close to abstraction. He does disguise his means or his ends. Conversely, he does not disguise himself or flaunt his identity. He does not appropriate the work of others except as visual inspiration, he avoids images from pop culture, and he has little irony. He tells only the obvious story or none at all.

Wall's lack of an accent may go with his Canadian origins. It also goes with a uniquely cerebral art, even when he turns to the Middle East. One must think for some time just to realize how hard one must think. In a sense, his work has a more troubled relationship to reality than even irony. Take only the first two photographs.

These photographs already introduce his trademark display—large prints in a light box. The first, from 1978, shows a room barely larger than a closet, stuffed with furniture and other accessories to living, and torn to shreds. Things lie everywhere across bedding and floor, and the Sheetrock has nasty holes. The second shows Wall himself, but twice. At the left he wears a white dress shirt with his sleeves rolled up and his arms crossed. At right he dresses and leans forward more casually.

It takes a moment in each case for the artifice to sink in. For all the appearance of impulsive trashing, Wall had to take hours to lay every item. It might have taken days to construct the room itself. One window borders unnaturally on a brick wall. The other has no view at all.

Double Self-Portrait exhibits his other forms of manipulation: he arranges actors and manipulates the image. Here and in an early tribute to A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, by Edouard Manet, he employs himself. From that point on, his face never appears again, but he has kept himself busy. He took days adjusting the scraggly cast in one of his most recent photographs, set outside a nightclub.

The big picture

Wall strikes so many contemporary notes that one can hardly keep track of them. Large prints of chilly spaces have come to dominate photography, only starting with such Germans as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth. After digital prints, a photographer can hardly gain respect any longer working small.

Wall's staging and twisted self-presentation preceded Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman, Gregory Crewdson, and Demand, not to mention Rachel Hovnanian and others now. The light boxes look back to the formalist's art object and Minimalism's use of industrial materials, but also to art as sheer commodity in a gallery, as with Louise Lawler. The device itself comes from advertising, and Wall adopted it for the impact of bright commercial spaces. All these imply an everyday reality subject to endless quotation, appropriation, and commodification. Without once invoking politics, the movies, or the glitter of a city at night, Wall makes it difficult not to quote Michel Foucault on the totalitarian eye or Jean Baudrillard on the society of the spectacle.

All these make him a model for many photographers today. I cannot remember a more uniformly praised retrospective for a contemporary artist. Even as he bursts out of that confining room, he keeps extending much the same devices. One can see the staging in milk caught as it flies out of a cup or in a sage telling his stories beneath a highway overpass. One can see it in an insomniac finding rest under a kitchen table or in men in suits scattering papers to the wind.

One can see the sense of oppression and destruction in a minor brawl, which turns out to represent a suburban eviction. One can see it in an unexplained march over another overpass, dead soldiers in Afghanistan, a flooded grave, or an old prison within an otherwise ordinary, expansive landscape. One can see appropriations from Manet's bar to the great opening scene of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. One can see a more artful appropriation in that Sudden Gust of Wind, based on a nineteenth-century Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai. A servant left to clean a classic modernist home could stand for all these many aspects of Wall's art.

Mostly, Wall keeps finding new ways to do much the same thing. With farm horses in the same landscape as prefabricated homes, one hardly knows who staged what. He has turned to digital manipulation, and he does not smooth over its traces for the few savvy enough to know. His appropriations now may reflect more overtly on the display of art. A wide-angle shot catches the restoration of a museum mural while muting the historical pageant. He turns to pure landscape, to black and white, and back.

Constructions grow even more obsessive, as with, one presumes, the thousand light bulbs of Ellison's angry protagonist. Then again, they can also become less overt and less obsessive, as with a close-up of grotty house siding. Perhaps more accurately, Wall defy ones to know which, since no one will count the light bulbs to judge his faithfulness to the novel.

Disorder and surface

However, all this interpretation overlooks something—the ways in which he does not do what others do. To locate them in more than negative terms, one has to consider the content of Wall's obsessions. I can appreciate the sheer kick of light boxes and crisp images. I can join the mind games. That still leaves open what makes the images so distant, but with a chilly interest all their own, too. On the one hand, control never does equate to order or even much in the way of visual interest. On the other hand, control excludes Postmodernism's typical irony or free play.

Wall's attention to everyday life accounts for only part of that exclusion. Unlike many other appropriation artists, he does not oppose surface and psychic subtext. Rather, he opposes two aspects of surfaces, as products and as processes. He nurtures chaos without surrendering to it like Robert Smithson or bursting it apart like Gordon Matta-Clark. He asserts a continued play, in which control leads to decomposition and decomposition reveals control.

Start again with the first two photographs. Wall has arranged the room carefully, but not patterned it in the least. He adopts a somewhat diagonal composition, as with the walk over an overpass. Mostly, however, he lets one know that all his work goes for naught—except perhaps for art. One can see the same game in the prominence of a cheap pizza parlor near the nightclub or in the insomniac's tawdry, dated kitchen appliances. One can almost overlook a hose in the background beyond the grave, which appeared at first to hold only rain and leaves from the sky but now has a human hand behind its disorder.

However, the same factors demand perfect clarity. The two sides of his self-portrait do not, of course, create a symmetrical composition, but they also do not stand as opposed parts of a psyche. They share the same black pants, the same refusal of formality, the same reluctance to let loose, much the same gangly half-slouch, and the same unrevealing frown. In narrative and form alike, Wall keeps things clean, crisp, on the surface. Even milk must pause in mid-flight. I cannot find grace or pleasure in A Sudden Gust of Wind, anger or terror in Ellison's stark basement, or torment in the open eyes of those ambushed Soviet soldiers.

Wall's finest photograph comes closer to psychology and confrontation, but in his own way. He boils Manet's bar down to an almost empty studio, its bare bulbs in receding perspective rows echoing the Parisian night spot. An attractive young woman stands near the picture plane at the left, the eye of the camera at dead center, and Wall's mirror image snapping the picture at right. He leans forward awkwardly, as if to pen the woman even further with his furtive eyes. Called Picture for Women, the impressive performance anticipates much feminist art by a decade.

However, the lens and the artist do not so much put the viewer's desires in their place as stand in place of those desires. One never, as with Manet, gets lost in a swirl of images or can mistake them for one's own. One has no taste of a social world and its temptations reeling off in all directions. One stands apart, with the illusion of more detachment than even the artist's. One knows exactly how everything works—right down the work's violations of logic, beauty, and propriety. One could even know what photography a museum permits.

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Jeff Wall's photographs ran at The Museum of Modern Art through May 14, 2007.


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