Culture Rover

#173 - Pure Mess

Jeff Wall is best known for his somewhat gimmicky photographs, such as snapping a glass of milk in flight (see Milk, 1984), but his current show at the Art Institute of Chicago reveals a deeper theme.

At first, for example, Milk draws your eyes to the unleashed liquid, but the more you scan the photograph, the more the background pattern of the brick building begins to dominate (it's a "wall," get it? Perhaps that's why this photograph graces the cover of Jeff Wall's catalogue for the show).

The liquid in the foreground fades to the background, and the rear of the photograph erupts. It is as if a painted canvas -- a Mondrian or work of Minimalism -- suddenly hijacked the photograph.

Indeed, many of Wall's pictures -- illuminated chiaroscuro-style in their backlit boxes -- toy with the tension between abstract painting and photo-realism. His Diagonal Composition photographs, such as Diagonal Composition (1993), picture gritty, lost, corners of the industrialized world: dirty sinks, peeled wood-paneling, rusted metal countertiops, old mops. Gross. But the more you look at them, the more they become ethereal abstract studies of form. Pretty.

It is this dialectic between materiality and abstraction, between the decaying, clotted, nasty world of the physical and the ideal, ordered, balanced world of the conceptual that Wall's photographs ask us to recognize.

The stuff of reality and the ideas of representation meet in his work: in the studies of objects that slowly, as you look them over, begin to dissolve into strange symbols (An Octopus, 1990); in his recreations of fictional scenes from novels (After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue, 1999-2000); in his collage-manipulations (The Flooded Grave, 1998-2000); or his cinematic recreations and stagings of events (The Destroyed Room, 1978, or Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986), 1992).

You leave Wall's exhibition caught in the retinal nerve between messy content and pure form, between the way things are, the energies from which they spring, and the orderings into which they might ultimately converge.

Your vision doubles, triples, returns to a singular perspective. You stare right through the world, framing it in boxes, glimpsing for a moment (perhaps) its backlit essences, then snapping back to the chaotic muck of its captured moment.

7 September 2007

Back to #172

Go to #174