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In a cluttered yet orderly barn, chickens hang by their wings and three women pluck and gut, chatting over their task. Suddenly, the woman in the middle pauses, leans back and then convulses with laughter – and Jeff Wall is ready with his camera.
“The women know I’m there but they are not paying me any mind – it was like a reality show,” the artist explains, as we pore over images in his Vancouver studio. “I caught her a few times, sometimes laughing and sometimes not, but when I saw this shot I realised that this expression of laughter took the picture into a completely different place. It was nothing that I did, I had no idea that was going to happen – it was a gift I got by accident.”
An infectiously joyous image, “Dressing Poultry” (2007) will be among the first that visitors see in an exhibition of Wall’s work at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. Entitled Jeff Wall: Tableaux, Pictures, Photographs 1996-2013, it highlights new directions in the artist’s work. In 1996 Wall made his first black-and-white prints and, more recently, he has added colour ink-jet prints to his repertoire: “Summer Afternoons” (2013), a diptych depicting two nudes, will be shown for the first time. The big, seductively glossy light-box works that, before 1996, were Wall’s stock in trade for 20 years will still be there but they will make up less than half of the show.
“I haven’t done a light box since 2007 so, in a way, the show is about the change in technique,” he says. “Nothing radical in the sense that I’m doing a different kind of picture: I’m doing the same kind of thing but with a different final print form.”
Since the 1970s, when he “drifted into” photography, the tableau – a carefully composed, autonomous picture, familiar from 19th-century painting – has been Wall’s chosen format. “Dressing Poultry” is a simple example, essentially documentary. It’s one end of the spectrum of an oeuvre that involves varying degrees of reconstruction and digital manipulation. At the other end are images such as “After Invisible Man” (1999-2000), which involved building a room, complete with 1,369 lightbulbs; and “The Flooded Grave” (1998-2000), for which he moulded a massive water tank and filled it with marine life.
The streets around Wall’s studio, where many people live rough, provide subjects and settings. Images such as “Overpass” (2001), in which four figures stride away from the camera, their worldly goods in tow, and “Mimic” (1982), in which a man makes a slanty-eye gesture as he overtakes an Asian in the street, highlight the inequalities of Vancouver life. Yet Wall denies a political agenda. “Well, yes, it’s an ugly moment,” he says of “Mimic”, “but I’m not sure I find political/social terms that interesting artistically. When I think that way I don’t get a buzz from what I do. If I think about a subject politically . . . it goes away!” he laughs. “When I think about it artistically, I get into it.”
What quickly becomes apparent is that Wall is at heart a conceptual artist: content matters to him much less than form. While “ugly moments” such as “Mimic” and unnerving ones like “A Man with a Rifle” (2000), in which a man aims an imaginary gun at passers-by, usually have their starting point in an event that Wall has seen, the pictures that result are reconstructions. “I would take a street photograph if I happened to have the right camera at the right moment but I almost never do. I have nothing against reportage. People have accused me of being afraid of doing it. And, I figure, that’s probably true.
“But it’s also to do with composition. I like the composition of a picture, the dance of colours and shapes across it, more than I like the subject. I love whatever subject I’m working on at the time because it’s taking me into the picture. When I’m done with the picture, I’m probably done with the subject. Some might say that’s a bit hostile and bit detached. But I go with my impulses and it seems that the art of composition is a great art.”
Wall’s approach to his work was forged in the upheavals in art theory and practice of the late 1960s. Having studied art history in Vancouver, he moved on to the Courtauld Institute in London and became immersed in both hardcore conceptual art and radical theory, steeping himself in the works of Walter Benjamin, Louis Althusser and the Frankfurt School. But critical debates only took him so far: he also had to find “a métier”.
He found it in the form of realism that had been through the conceptual mangle and come out the other side. “If anything could be art, the art of the past can be art,” he says. “That was a paradox that couldn’t be excluded. If I wanted to go back and reconstruct the 19th century in my own head, that was art. It opened the door to doing something so-called traditional that wasn’t traditional at all. It’s just as post-conceptual as anything else and stems from the same starting point.”
He had discovered art via the illustrated art books that his parents received on subscription. “I loved looking at Bruegel’s ‘Triumph of Death’ as a kid, all the skeletons and victims of the apocalypse. It was like a movie, better than a movie in a way.” Photography fascinated him, too. He admired the work of Walker Evans and Robert Frank but there was a sense that they had done all there was to be done.
“It seemed like those people had pretty much perfected that kind of photography – the small photograph of the real world, made somehow in the actual, and ending up in a book. It was the perfect form of reportage as art – and it seemed there was nowhere to go after them. I saw it as a closed door. It just wasn’t for me.”
By contrast, cinema offered a way forward. “Cinema was a great model for openness in photography because there was no stylistic norm,” he says. And since the earliest light-box works, such as the much loved/much argued-over “Picture for Women” (1979) – a puzzle in a mirror based on Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” – Wall has called his pictures “cinematography”. The light boxes may have now given way to black-and-white and ink-jet colour prints but he still regards the term as apt. It is all about composition.
“Compose, bring things together, make unity out of them,” he says. “It’s one of the most pleasurable things one can do.”
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, March 1-August 3, stedelijk.nl