Photographer Jeff Wall welcomes the old masters

Jeff Walls photographs open wide views to muted, enigmatic scenes. A figure collapses on a sidewalk at night, barely visible in the shadows. A man cracks his front door to look into the hall. A trio of women pick chickens at a table. An open grave is filled with water.

These panoramic close-ups, monumental in scale, sharp in focus and crammed full of carefully composed details, suggest stories that we can not reconstruct no matter how long we stare. Examining one of these images is like parachuting into the middle of a multi-season TV series: you do not know what is important or what has already been explained, but you can sense the effort. Every tableau, full of excitement, feels like a moment that precedes misfortune, or a tragedy that is almost complete before anyone has noticed it.

Glenstone, an elegant arrangement of concrete boxes in a lush property outside Washington, DC, has mounted the largest wall prospect in the United States for 14 years, and it’s a stunning one. As I searched around the impeccably extra galleries, I thought of Bruegel’s Icarus, which inadvertently tumbled out of the sky, while the rest of the world continued with the everyday rumpus. WH Auden highlighted in his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” the disturbance of the exuberant winter landscape:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it goes
While another eats or opens a window or just walks lazily away.

In his work “Boy falls from tree” from 2010, Wall also depicts a (possibly tragic) fall, while the natural world buzzes. The stage is a lush suburban farm. Green explodes around the tool shed. Leaves flutter in sunlight; grass unfolds like velvet carpets. Distracted by the abundance of this manicured, civilized landscape, you almost miss the boy writhing awkwardly as he crashes from a tall branch.

Wall uses light, color and objects to divert attention from the main event, around action in the atmosphere. A blue plastic swing hangs from a branch by two strands of yellow rope, suggesting an earlier stage of childhood. Accidents take place in the shady space between cabin and wood, so that it practically disappears. A garden, a fall from grace, a loss of innocence – Wall suggests big themes, without specifying how the viewer should feel about them.

'The Destroyed Room' (1978)

‘The Destroyed Room’ (1978) © Jeff Wall. Courtesy artist and Glenstone Museum

In “An Eviction,” his approach is even more Bruegel-like. In the original square-format edition from 1988, a pair of uniformed bailiffs grab a man by the arms while his wife throws herself at the fighting group. From the shaded threshold their little boy looks on. In the 2004 edit, the camera pulls back much further, giving us an aerial view of a subdivision that has gone a bit to seed, a mix of groomed and scrubbed lawns. There are several cars parked along the street and several spectators to witness – or ignore – the family mortification. Referred to small parts of the massive diorama, a grandmother pushes a shopping cart, a neighbor looks out between two trees, a girl bikes along the sidewalk. Life lags behind in its prosaic form, barely grazed by outbursts of despair.

In the midst of all this ambiguity, the artist makes one unmistakable claim: that he belongs directly among the infallible old masters. “The Destroyed Room” (1978), one of the earliest works on display, draws its blood-red palette and electrifying composition from Delacroix’s “Death of Sardanapalus” (1827). Here there is no plump pasha facing his own end, no harrowing concubines executed on his order. Instead, we get repercussions: a torn mattress that reflects Delacroix’s sloping diagonal, stray jewelry, and a shoe closet’s stilettos strewn around. An open door reveals that the crime scene is a scene, its walls supported by wooden struts, the violence carefully composed. It’s artifacts all the way down.

'Picture for women' (1979)

‘Picture for Women’ (1979) © Jeff Wall. Courtesy artist and Glenstone Museum

Another early work, “Picture for Women” (1979), invokes Manet’s “Bar at the Folies-Bergère”. Wall and Manet both portray a young woman staring out with set-it-all exhaustion, hands resting on a tabletop and straining up to a man’s attention. A mirror reflects the scene she sees in front of her, capturing the artist’s cool, analytical gaze. But where Manet fills the reflected bar with bustle, bright sconces and a huge chandelier, Wall sets the stage on a grim gray ceiling lit by bare bulbs hanging from exposed tubes. The camera captures the center of the image. And wait – this time the mirror is not behind the woman, but in front. The subject and the portraitist do not stand face to face, but side by side and meet each other’s reflected gaze.

Wall explores the gap between his technique’s high-gloss ambition and the shaggyness of his scenes. With obsessive attention to truth, he has placed every single curly cloth and darkened all the carpet stains. In “Search of premises” (2009), agents in bulletproof vests sift through a cardboard box of papers in a sparsely furnished apartment. Every decorative touch – a lace tablecloth, an incoherent chandelier – highlights the fugue of disappointment.

‘Searching for Rooms’ (2009) © Jeff Wall. Courtesy artist and Glenstone Museum

Like Manet, Wall responds to what Baudelaire called “the heroism of modern life,” the enormous struggles embedded in ordinary life. Both spin epics out of the worldly. But Manet had the painting’s long tradition of greatness to draw on; in the early 1970s, photography was still a small medium. Wall wanted to make it big, and he wanted it to glow with oil glow.

He tried to paint and gave it up, loathed conceptual art, found street photography suffocating, and pursued a dead-end career in film. For seven years he did nothing, searching for a way to reconcile narrative, emotion, art history, and psychological depth, while satisfying his need for total control.

As he rode the bus into the depths of his crisis, he saw a luminous advertisement revealing his fate: a staged photograph, illuminated from behind and magnified to scale like a story painting. He could! Wall began printing photographs on transparent sheets and mounting them on light boxes so that the image became a sculpture. He built scenery, hired actors and wrote scripts that resembled documentaries, and became the author of his own lively universe.

In the days before every home had its own large backlit screen filled with high-resolution images, Walls images had a unique power. Recently, he has left the light box in favor of color inkjet printers that are even more lavish.

'Summer Afternoons' (2013)

‘Summer Afternoons’ (2013) © Jeff Wall. Courtesy artist and Glenstone Museum

In the diptych “Summer Afternoons” from 2013, we see the same room from two different angles: fuchsia armchairs, egg yolk-colored walls, a double mattress covered by a mattress spread. In one, a man lies naked on the floor, his body twisted away from the viewer. In the other, a naked woman leans back, Olympia-style, on the bed, her expression blank, her feet pointing towards the sunny window.

Wall’s penchant for mystery has blossomed and fills both great frameworks. Do these two people share a home? Do they know each other at all? Nothing seems to pass between them, no actual leaps from one image to another. And the impenetrable loneliness is Wall’s most consistent theme, the tragic feeling that no matter what violent upheaval a person may experience, it can barely be detected on anyone else’s emotional seismograph.

Until March,

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