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For almost 30 years Jeff Wall’s photographs have attracted attention, not least because of their monumental size and luminous colour. Giant illuminated transparencies displayed in a light box, often as large as 8ft by 14ft, they overflow with an abundance of super-realist detail and create an eye-catching presence in any gallery. In the early 1980s, these seductively shimmering, insistent scenarios and tableaux vivants, with their mysterious narratives and enigmatic actors, were astonishing in every way. Have they retained their impact?

The retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art offers a chance to find out. It comprises 40 works that span Wall’s career from 1978 to today, a robust assembly of impeccably installed, technically brilliant, ambitious pictures, including recent works shown for the first time in North America. The result is imposing, theatrical, clinically dazzling – and not a little confusing.

Wall, a Canadian based in Vancouver, is a glacially slow worker, sometimes producing a mere four works a year, so the exhibition provides a comprehensive overview of his big works. Nearly all are isolated statements. “I don’t like to repeat myself formally,” he has said, so one never knows what to expect from one photo to the next. Fantasy comes hard on the heels of grim social comment; scruffy still life follows polished storytelling.

Yet all have one thing at least in common. His photographs are staged, his tableaux vivants artificial, his dramas rehearsed, his images fictional. Working like a film-maker or art director, he drives round, scouts out a location, finds his “actors” (always amateurs, sometimes family members, often strangers), works out the costumes, the props, constructs the sets or backdrop, and then re-hearses the performers, frequently over several weeks. “I take hundreds and hundreds of shots,” he says. From these, he selects one perfect, frozen image.

Wall calls this technique “cinematography”. “Cinematography needs preparation, it needs collaborators, it needs controlled lighting,” he says. “Not because these are stills from a film – they are not.” He divides the rest of his oeuvre into “near-documentary” and straight photography, with “digital montage” coming into play in 1991.

“Mimic” from 1982 is a good example of “near-documentary” portrayed life-size. Here he recreates a chance moment witnessed on the street. A Canadian man pulls his eyelid to make a mocking oriental eye as he walks past an Asian. (An underlying threat of violence is common in Wall’s work.) “It’s what I call an automatic ‘micro-gesture’,” Wall says. “All my figures are filled with suppressed emotion. In “Milk” from 1984, for example, the man’s body is tense and rigid with inexpressivity. It’s the milk which is exploding.”

In his digital montages, Wall has digitally manipulated his images. Sometimes this is done for technical reasons of enhanced light and shade or to get detail into the highlights. Sometimes it is done to add special effects, such as the gaping wounds in the huge, hypnotically gruesome “Dead Troops Talk (A Vision after an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol, Afghanistan 1986)”.

Wall began as a painter, ventured into film and also studied art history at London’s Courtauld Institute. He was originally better known in Europe than in North America, because of his German dealer and his participation in the prestigious five-yearly Documenta exhibition in 1982, 1987, 1997 and 2002. As permanent professor at the visual arts department at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University from 1975 to 1987, then at the University of British Columbia until 1999, he has lectured and written extensively on conceptual art and photography. MoMA’s accompanying catalogue plus a book of his essays give an in-depth assessment of Wall’s labyrinthine literary and aesthetic battles.

This academic love of intellectualising, combined with calculated presentation, highly controlled camera techniques, a melancholy pessimism and personal restraint (Canadians are naturally reserved, Wall says), tends to produce cold, stark, impersonal pictures. Their impact is undeniable, but they lack humanity. Overarching theory frequently suffocates Wall’s talents.

His best images are those that allow their participants – and the viewer – to breathe. His rare straight-forward panoramic landscapes from around Vancouver, for example, such as 1989’s “Coastal Motifs” or 1980’s “Steve’s Farm”, where a horse’s hoof is allowed to blur, and the more recent “Staining Bench”, work well.

Surprisingly, this control-lover insists his ideas come by accident: “Events I see by chance; accidents of reading.” [Wall has created three images based on incidents described in books, including Kafka, Mishima and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.] “One thing leads to another. My near-documentary picture of the window cleaner at Barcelona’s Mies van der Rohe building came that way, and I used the guy who normally does the windows at 7.00am each day.”

Wall’s obsessive approach and his aesthetic of accumulation of information and detail peaks in the memorable “Invisible Man”, with its thousands of light bulbs and its object-littered surfaces. “Reality can only be portrayed when one constructs it,” Wall says paradoxically.

His newest composition, a vast, multi-figure mise en scène entitled “In Front of a Night Club”, continues his preoccupation with precision, and can perhaps be viewed as a commentary on the artificiality of our culture. “I wanted the lull that happens sometimes here, a nothing-happening moment, an interval which is very interesting,” Wall says. “No hugging, no kissing the bouncers. One guy eats a pizza. The rose seller is just arriving. I orchestrated 40 figures.” Even here dejection thrives.

Wall’s attachment to art history has spawned several images inspired by Delacroix and Manet. His most successful work of this type, however, is one based on a print by the Japanese artist Hokusai, from the series “Thirty-Six views of Mt Fuji”. Digitally combining 100 shots, Wall does away with the mountain but the four figures that twirl and bend in the gust that tears the fluttering papers from their grasp are more alive than any of the clubbers, insomniacs or passers-by featured in previous Wall images. For in the end most of Wall’s scenarios, for all their technical brilliance, radiate a cold, uncomfort-able artificiality. If only he could feel as much as he can think.

‘Jeff Wall’ is at MoMA, New York, until May 14, tel +1 212 708 9400, then at Chicago Art Institute, June 30- September 23 and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, October 27-January 27

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