Between two arid Sicilian hillsides -one black and white, the other in colour- we are encouraged down a photographic valley to a crumbling headstone. Jeff Wall’s new exhibition at the White Cube Gallery begins with a room of only three images all made in Sicily in 2007. This is as close as you will ever come to a series of pictures made by Jeff Wall. The photographer who famously excels in singular tableaux narrative images, now brings three pictures together to work in an almost installation like manner. And it works convincingly. One has the feeling that the abrupt earth of the hillsides is too barren and unforgiving to breach, and so you must flow down this vale to the inevitability of death. And in this case a forgotten death; a single headstone sits on an unkempt rust coloured floor, a row of tiles appear uprooted by indiscriminate weeds that gradually make their way towards a concrete slab that marks the resting place of an unidentified person. Wall’s voyage into ‘series’ leaves the viewer with an irrational, but entirely human melancholic feeling deep in their conscience. (more)
In the basement of the gallery Wall shows seven of his most recent works all from the last three years. In un-customary fashion none of the images both upstairs and downstairs are displayed on light-boxes. Wall has abandoned his famed display method, and instead opts for conventionally framed prints that retain the original scale of his previous light-boxes.
The biggest of the works, Band & Crowd (2011), hangs on the far wall of the lower gallery. Like the band playing on the stage before us, we enter the gallery and look over the detached, sparse looking crowd. Wall plunges us immediately into an awkward, almost embarrassing moment.
Two of the seven images in the lower gallery form a dialogue between themselves that begins to exclude the other images hanging around them. Boy falls from tree (2010) and Boxing (2011) sit across the room from each other but mutually yearn to be looked at in the same thought. Both of these works deal with immanence. In Boy falls from tree Wall shows us a typical suburban back yard: a shed, a football on kept grass, a swing hanging from a tall tree bathed in sunlight- all these things attest to normality, banality even. However, with a second look we observe the lumbering figure of a boy falling towards terra firma from the aforementioned tree. His gawky adolescence -his lack of control over his own body- makes the viewer tense at the prospect of this boy thumping into the ground. We stand then before the image, absorbed by this moment of infinite suspense and linger upon this quintessentially photographic moment of just before.
Boxing (2011) could have been made in parallel to Boy falls from tree. Once again Wall sets his work in the familiarity of middle class life. An overly neat, clean cut contemporary living room in tones of beige is disrupted by two shirtless boys boxing. One dodges a punch and leans backwards as the offensive of the two extends his arm in a failed punch. Once again this image lives in the just before. The just before not only of the punch -what is the retaliation attempt going to be like?- but in their adolescence, there just before adulthood; the next generation pre-programmed to aspire to the middle class house with its respectable, large garden.
These works address each other in the tension of youth, the difficulty of the boy, and what is expected of him once through his inelegant teens. Wall, consistently responsive to and inspired by, art history, will be acutely aware of the role of the boy in the history of western art. This work appears as homage to that motif and simultaneously a comment on the difficulties of the contemporary youth in an increasingly competitive society, that condemns the young to a premature adulthood that once part of, one can never escape.
Jeff Wall is on view at The White Cube Gallery, Masons Yard, until 7th January, 2012.
~Christopher Thomas (firstname.lastname@example.org)
(images courtesy White Cube Gallery - thank you!)