Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Profane illuminations: social history and the art of Jeff Wall

Crossover between the studio and the seminar room has been a conspicuous feature of advanced art over the last fifteen years. The principal medium of exchange has been what is broadly termed "theory," which in practice has meant a narrower set of concepts derived from the translated texts of a few French writers. But what can one say about the other, parallel development in the study of art within the academy: the strong emergence over the same period of (for want of a better term) a social history of art? Here any passage from the classroom to the actual fashioning of art has been much less obvious: the kinds of erudition generated by wide-ranging historical inquiry have been far more resistant to codification in ways that suggested immediate practical applications and rewards. If there was to be any transition between new forms of historical awareness and new moves in art, it would necessarily be more deliberate and complicated. Only a few artists can be said to have bridged the two pursuits, and prominent within this small group has been Jeff Wall. His accumulated work over a decade and a half testifies to the potential of social-historical inquiry to motivate persuasive work in the studio.
Wall has forthrightly declared in a recent interview that "none of my work could have been done without the turmoil within art history."(1) And indeed, he spent a significant part of the '70s away from artmaking, pursuing a postgraduate degree in the discipline at the Courtauld Institute in London. Since then, interviews have shown him to be at ease with learned citations from the art of the past, and he has explicitly likened certain of his works to canonical paintings going back as far as the 17th century. But this kind of general expertise does not point directly to the deeper involvement of his art with an art-historical enterprise. Nor does the subject matter of his thesis research, which ranged from Berlin Dada to Marcel Duchamp. What seems to have mattered most for his return to practice--and the grounds he proposes for a nontrivial return to figuration--was the changed value that social historians were beginning to give to subject matter in the French painting of the immediately preceding period, from Courbet to Post-Impressionism. And it was this newer research into French modern-life painting in particular that was exposing a sharp and unsustainable divide in the intellectual assumptions of the art-historical enterprise--and thus creating the turmoil in question.
As modern art had been admitted to serious attention by academic art historians (especially after World War II), it came already wrapped in Modernist packaging. Indeed, Michael Fried was only sharpening a general assumption when he asserted in 1964 that "the history of painting from Manet through Synthetic Cubism and Matisse may be characterized in terms of the gradual withdrawal of painting from the task of representing reality--or of reality from the power of painting to represent it."(2) This view, implicitly shared by many others in the field who lacked Fried's express commitment to searching out a pedigree for '60s Color Field painting, meant that there could be no systematic iconography for the art of the Modern era. While the formal preoccupations of a Heinrich Wolfflin could be transferred easily enough to the art of the 19th and 20th centuries, this was not the case with Aby Warburg's or Erwin Panofsky's systematic parsing of traditional subject matter. The latter mode of inquiry had been underpinned by centuries-old symbolic systems of religious emblematics, humanistic erudition, or princely allegory. After artists had consciously rejected such governing orders, to what system could the interpreter reasonably appeal beyond contingent personal histories or the technical parameters of art?
The perceived radicality of social art history, then, was paradoxically traditional in its actual challenge to this complacent bifurcation of history; it simply insisted that there was no reason to stop applying iconographic concerns at any juncture. Had societies in general or artists in particular at any point ceased to be governed by symbolic codes? Obviously not, but the symbolic life of a secularized social order, one continually subject to drastic transformations in its economy, demographics, and communications, was going to be more hidden and transitory--and that much harder to describe. Much of what had been construed under Modernist thinking as the substitution of formal for referential concerns could be redescribed as a restless search for provisional systems of representation adequate to complex new subject matter.
The territory needed a map, and art historians availed themselves of three basic kinds. The first was as literal as could be: the complex physical and social geography of Paris was exploited as a master code for grasping the seemingly opaque or incongruous iconographic choices made by the avant-garde that clustered in the city from the 1850s to the 1880s. So much that seemed willful and unexpected in that iconography could be matched to the actual dislocation and provisional reconstruction of the city under Baron Haussmann, and "Haussmannization" became a talismanic word for a generation. The second was that same geography, but as specifically filtered through the imagination of Charles Baudelaire, identified as the great prophet of modernity, then filtered a second time through Walter Benjamin's reading of Baudelaire in the 1930s. The third was derived from one outcome of the attempt, in the uprisings of 1968, to remap the city from below: during the following decade the British journal Screen took its lead from French theory in the project of linking a Marxist critique of ideology with an account of the formation of subjectivity. Sharing many of the same sources and ambitions, the most sophisticated wing of social art history had by the early to mid '70s extended its theoretical horizon beyond the Frankfurt School to become sufficiently conversant with the likes of Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Luce Irigaray.
The last map was the one that most powerfully underwrote attention to subject matter as primary, doing so by its ability to place the iconography of advanced 19th century art under a negative sign. Canonical examples of liberated technique, such as Eugene Delacroix's La mort de Saranapal (Death of Sardanapalus, 1827) and Edouard Manet's Un bar aux Folies-Bergere (Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1881-87) could be situated beyond the standard accounts of adventurous colorism, abbreviated description, and expressive handling of the brush, beyond even preoccupations with the artist's individual sexual psychology. Instead they were to be seen primarily as symptomatic instances of structured sexual positioning--fantasies of male visual control as indulged in the former or interrupted in the latter--potentially generalizable to the culture as a whole. It was with this last map that Wall began at the point of his return to sustained studio work, and from there he proceeded backward through the other two, as often as not in advance of their full realization in the writing of academic social historians.
At the end of the 1970s, after a seven-year hiatus in his activity as an artist, Wall did the first of his large, back-lit photographic transparencies, establishing a signature format he has continued to use uninterruptedly up to the present. Among the earliest are two that took up the challenge of precisely these monuments by Delacroix and Manet. Picture for Women, 1979, took the latter as its point of departure. The lines of bare bulbs in the studio echo Manet's globular lamps in a perfect diagram of Albertian perspective, and the window frames with the two symmetrical lamp standards chart the artist's translation of depth into a functional linear grid (that being the stable order permitting Manet's multiple violations of unified illusion). Studio space and mental map become one. The flanking standards, which rise out of the frame, also edge male and female to the wings of a central panel dominated by the camera as lens and recording device. The play with edges is a further formal homage to Manet, and as in the Bar it employs the workings of a mirror, finding a new purpose to that painting's unstable interplay between the spectator's centrality (as "seen" by the woman) and displacement (as "reflected" in the objective optic of the mirror), in order to concretize the fresh theoretical speculation then circulating around questions of male spectatorship and the complicity of both Renaissance perspective and the camera's technology in that regime.(3) All of this is saved for art, as opposed to clever illustration, by the thoroughly prosaic and contemporary character of every detail, the consistency with which it appears to do no more than expose a working procedure.
The Destroyed Room, completed the year before, records an elaborately constructed tableau, arranged as an allegory of some disaster in a contemporary woman's life, keyed to the color and compositional order of Delacroix's fantasy of wholesale mayhem and murder. Though his prototype was far from Manet's urban naturalism, Wall subjected the result to the least pretentious mode of presentation he has used to date. The illuminated panel was first hung pressed against a street-level display window of a Vancouver gallery housed in a nondescript commercial building. There was in this a modest acknowledgement of the identity between his lightboxes and the attention-seeking devices of outdoor advertising. Unprepared passersby were doubtless arrested and perplexed by a vivid, momentary illusion of some enigmatic catastrophe in a place customarily reserved for brightly enticing reassurance. But like all temporary, site-specific pieces, this installation is as significant for the permanent idea it implanted as it is for the impression it may or may not have made on its limited original audience. This was the residue of grand historical painting as presented to and transformed by the vision of the random urban pedestrian. Delacroix rather than Manet had after all been Baudelaire's idea of the consummate artist: The Destroyed Room is Delacroix under the gaze of the flaneur and his low-life surrogates--the prostitute, street criminal, and derelict ragpicker--for each of whom the violent tableau would have distinctly different meanings.
Wall did not make a habit of this unexpectedly public mode of display, but he proceeded in his suspended narratives to work his own way through the inherited mythology of the flaneur as hero of modernity. Benjamin had called particular attention to the disjunctive interplay in Baudelaire's poetry between the most aggressively common image and the most elevated allegorical abstraction. A direct counterpart to this attention in social art history was a turn toward those artists who combined a precision of urban typology with a certain pompous academic scale and compositional order. From this altered point of view, the stiffness and estrangement of ritualized leisure in Seurat were revelatory, as was the "unexpected desolation" present in the monumental street scenes of social art history's real discovery, Gustave Caillebotte.(4)
In the making of his intense, mural-sized transparencies, Wall found a plausible contemporary equivalent to the physical impact achieved by these artists--in his words, "a specific opposite to painting."(5) In the painstaking, finely detailed staging of his photographic subjects, he found a way to match their laborious deliberation over composition and technical refinement, all without descending into quotation or museum-bound revivalism. The analogy with film is unavoidable, but rather than making the more obvious identifications with director, cinematographer, or editor, Wall singled out the crucial but unsung role of the art director, the creator of the look of a film and the necessary master of every trick of illusion.
Even with its elaborately refined construction, the illuminated transparency might have remained a remote metaphor for flaneur academicism had not Wall constructed thematic parallels to Benjamin's reading of 19th-century modernity that were explicit to the point of literalism. In the latter's aphoristic formula, it was the figure of a woman, the prostitute, who summed up the perpetual displacement of human subjectivity in thrall to the capitalist mirage: she is "the commodity . . . who is seller and commodity in one," and this same condition overtakes the ordinary bourgeois male, who submits his own being to the regime of things and their exchange.(6) Wall's No of 1983 could be placed beside that unreadable encounter between the man and woman at the left side of Caillebotte's Le pont de l'Europe, 1876. The setting of the painting was a marvel of 19th-century capitalist expansion, the iron bridge spanning the rail lines leaving the Gare Saint-Lazare; the adjoining district was itself entirely new, its wide avenues and straight lines epitomizing Haussmann's rationalized urbanism. No places its nonencounter between prostitute and passing businessman in a late-20th-century counterpart to Caillebotte's assertively modern environment--a faceless financial and corporate center typical of scores of modern cities, which have repeated the pattern set by Haussmann in ruthlessly displacing older, more varied social ecologies. The man's buttoned-up overcoat and the woman's cheap fur evoke a chill outdoors, but the architecture encloses the scene into an interior with no visual outlet: a transformation of boulevard into room is precisely what Benjamin described as the vision and experience of the flaneur.
At the same time, the still chilliness of No displays a rigid and rarefied abstraction similar to that which Benjaminian theorizing tended to generate in art-historical work. While that parallel academic activity--itself subject to the seductive fascinations of Paris--has largely failed to move on from competitive cultivation of expertise in the interpretation of one past cultural episode, Wall has been able to advance from this parochialism (national, chronological, and theoretical) by returning to the most basic of the three mapping exercises outlined above, the description of a local geography that is at once familiar and strange.
In his case, it was the obvious one directly under his feet--the city of Vancouver. Some of his earliest panels (more recently realized in a large format) exploit the self-evident scenic potential of the format in panoramic landscapes. In each one, however, the city is seen only at its fringes, or is registered at a distance by the rough incursions of industry into the surrounding wilderness. Those fringes are typically a patchwork of cheap, ill-planned suburban housing, warehouses, overpasses, and littered ground, which the camera and scale of the image force incongruously into the dramatic sweep and grandeur of the traditional landscapist's distant prospect.
Epic sweep in those panels prevented the urban fringe from offering the reassurance of a melancholy picturesque. A suggestion of the latter does, however, hang over the close-up studies of such locations which followed a few years later, such as Bad Goods, 1984, and Diatribe, 1985. For the latter work, Wall has proposed adventurous analogies with Poussin's Paysage avec Diogene (Landscape with Diogenes, 1648) and, by thematic extension from that prototype, with the peripatetic philosophers of antiquity, in whose stead he places the young welfare mothers impersonated by his models: it is they, as "the least favoured members" of society, who possess "a generic, objective relation to the traditional aims of critical philosophy."(7) His gloss is persuasive as a report on the chain of thought prompted by his flanerie by automobile in the outskirts of Vancouver and his observation of the social invisibility suffered by poor young women coping with small children in that landscape. But one has to wonder if the actual density of information in the panel is sufficient to guarantee a response of this sophistication. At the same time he has a secure claim to having discovered the importance of the suburban terrain vague as a diagnostic feature of modernity at more or less the same moment that it was called to the attention of academic art history in T. J. Clark's The Painting of Modern Life. More than with any classical landscape, the arrangement of action and setting in Diatribe converge in an uncanny way with that small, uncharacteristic painting by Van Gogh, Outskirts of Paris, 1886, which launched Clark's dissection of the topic and was then hardly known in the literature.
Van Gogh's work was, in all likelihood, a provisional response to Georges Seurat's monumental procession of suburban humanity in Un Dimanche apres-midi a l'ile de la Grand Jatte (Sunday afternoon on the island of the Grande Jatte, 1884-86).(8) The blank, undecided nature of the painting was an achievement in itself and may be the grounds for its accuracy, but it resists any more ambitious scale than the one Van Gogh gave it. Nor did he pursue the direction that the painting suggests, with his subsequent shift to rural Provence removing any necessity to do so. The size and unnatural clarity of Wall's panels demanded a higher, more Seurat-like degree of articulation. And when he found the necessary organizing principle, it came with an impeccably Benjaminian provenance: shock as the defining feature of modern experience, the sensory assault that lends to urban life its perpetual aspect of the uncanny. The liquid explosion set off by the tense streetperson in Milk, 1984, begins to provide a satisfactory focus and intensity of internal incident; it succeeds in dramatizing the condition of homelessness with an unusually minimal reliance on pathos.
Conveying subjection to shock did not necessarily require such abrupt and incongruous action. The Guitarist of 1987 pursued another vein of illusion altogether, one plausibly (and in fact) provided by the actors themselves. The adolescent squalor of the setting--graffiti and detritus together--carries the imprint of myriad shocks and undigested impressions from the city outside, registering as well a half-understood history of symbolic protest by their elders since the '60s. It documents the complete vernacular assimilation of collage esthetics, which punk cemented and which is now prehistory for this generation. Wall, casting a certain parental gaze over the tableau, claims it back for art by maneuvering contemporary disorder and aimlessness into a conceptual grid again provided by the urbanity of 19th-century Paris. The dark-haired eponymous figure, actually a young woman born in Latin America, lifts itself from the immediate photographic continuum to join Manet's Latin guitarists and dancers, that artist's response to the fascination exerted by the touring Spanish troupes of the 1860s. The pertinence of the connection derives from Manet himself having used these entertainers to collapse the historical distance separating his own moment from the tradition of Spanish tonal painting and self-declarative technique linking Velazquez to Goya. The Asian manufacturer of the cheap electric guitar has sought to disguise the origins of the instrument behind an Iberian aura by taking the name of the latter as a brand identity, allowing Wall in all plausibility to emblazon the magic signature at the center of the composition. The beauty and androgyny of the central figure crosses this line of descent at another angle to join Manet's Mlle. V. in the Costume of an Espada, 1862, to Caravaggio's ephebic lute-players.
No informed viewer who takes time over the work will be able to fend off these connotations. The dense condensation of vivid historical reference disrupts the unity of the photographic impression from the inside without resorting to collage, montage, or their current manifestation in the ubiquitous scatter installation. And this is brought home by the inclusion of their achieved vernacular equivalent.(9) Among several recent works that return to the overt theme of urban shock, The Stumbling Block, 1991, imagines its administration to have become a responsibility of municipal government. A civic employee stakes out the pavement suited up in outlandish protective gear--somewhere between samurai armor, the pads of an ice-hockey goalie, and a sleeping bag--that renders him incapable of movement. A simulated electronic device, connected by computer cable to the monopod body-casing, bears an official seal reading "Office of the Stumbling Block--Works Dept"; his helmet keeps him in radio contact with headquarters. The personification of urban shock, its translation into static farce, signals a change in the logic that has governed Wall's work for more than a decade: its tense inscription of allegorical meaning into a screen of apparently seamless naturalism. The voluntary pratfalls undergone by Wall's characters connect the panel to the suppressed potential for a genre of silent film in Technicolor, with all of the promise of heightened fantasy entailed in that counterfactual entity.
The high-technology stumbling block is a comically passive surrogate for the artist's now far more interventionist control of advanced reproductive technology, one in which the temporal succession of film is replaced with the spatial suture of disparate images permitted by photographic digitalization. This process also permits a gradual working-up of a composition part by part, in a way that approximates the studio procedures of traditional narrative painting. (In Wall's prior work that approximation had been restricted, for technical reasons, to the building of sets and direction of actors.) The characters in The Stumbling Block were all posed in the studio, but perhaps the first full extension of that change can be seen in Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Mogor, Afghanistan, winter 1986), 1991-92. In what is surely an allegory of the end of the Cold War, seen from a place and through an event maximally remote from Western awareness, Wall now gives free rein to the occult possibilities of technological manipulation. Entirely constructed in the studio, integrating the sort of special effects normally encountered in Hollywood horror, this panel achieves a new emotional and art-historical range. Its imagery can slip in a matter of inches from the pathetic to the noble to the utterly grotesque, from Baron Gros to Ilya Repin to Heironymous Bosch to Goya yet again (another way of describing it would be as a modern equivalent to the survivors of the raft of the Medusa with all of the gore that Gericault recorded in the morgue but could never put on a monumental canvas--which of course makes the heroic nobility of the original impossible to sustain). At the same time, negotiating this mobility of reference requires an orderly march through a composition unabashedly based on the rigid pyramidal structures of ancien regime academic practice. Advanced technology seems to have permitted a move past the surreptitious, ad-hoc academicism of modern-life painting in the later 19th century to a brave encounter with the real thing. The compositional pyramid is the leitmotif of virtually all the work of the last three years, even that still based on nondigital processing; it assumes emblematic form in the reclining male nude at the center of Vampires' Picnic, 1991, in which Hellenistic warrior and Hogarth's rake in Bedlam are elided under the auspices of George Romero's genre-bending combinations of comedy and cannibalistic shock on film (shades again of the repressed in Gericault's castaways).
One way of giving an aphoristic verbal gloss to Wall's work would be to positively turn Adorno's famously negative appraisal of Benjamin's first, 1938 version of his Baudelaire essay: "If one wished to put it very drastically, one could say that your study is located at the crossroads of magic and positivism. That spot is bewitched." He went on to recommend to Benjamin that "only theory could break the spell--your own resolute, salutarily speculative theory."(10) For this reader at least, that first essay remains superior to the allusive and abstracted revision, which he offered in conformity to the demands of a school. That bedeviled crossroads may yet offer a vantage point from which to see the territory where existing theory cannot take us. As Benjamin himself said in pained defense of his first approach, "Speculation can start its necessarily bold flight with some prospect of success only if, instead of putting on the waxen wings of the esoteric, it seeks its source of strength in construction alone."(11)
1. T. J. Clark, Serge Guilbaut, and Anne Wagner, "Representations, Suspicions and Critical Transparency: An Interview with Jeff Wall," Parachute 59, July-September 1990, p. 10.
2. Michael Fried, "Modernist Painting and Formal Criticism," The American Scholar 33 no. 4, Autumn 1964, p. 642. Reprinted in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, ed., Art in Theory, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992, p. 770.
3. Nor is the Renaissance evoked in an idle way. Wall's departures from ways in which Manet fixed the glance of a mobile pleasure-seeker push the Bar into the most ritualized of painting's formats, the devotional triptych. As in Van Eyck's Gent altarpiece, male and female take the positions of Adam and Eve flanking the all-seeing God, who constitutes them in sexual difference. The Italian Renaissance would come to theorize perspective in terms of the godhead at the vanishing point (as in Raphael's Disputa); that of the late 20th century resorts to Lacan's Name-of-the-Father. Picture for Women makes the two so entirely coincident that it becomes the task of the viewer to work out the actual distance that separates them.
4. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers, Princeton: at the University Press, 1984, p. 15.
5. Jeff Wall quoted in Els Barents, "Typology, Luminescence, Freedom: Selections from a Conversation with Jeff Wall," Transparencies, Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 1986), p. 100.
6. The best discussion of this subject is in Hollis Clayson, Painted Love: Prostitution in French Art of the Impressionist Era, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 7-9 and passim.
7. Wall, p. 98: "Proletarian maternity is just as much a bourgeois scandal as proletarian prostitution is, but it's just the other side of the same coin."
8. This is Clark's plausible proposal. See The Painting of Modern Life, p. 25.
9. The Guitarist, down to a precise motif like the knit stuffed toy, anticipates the characteristic raw material of Mike Kelley's installations of the last few years, as well as their thematics. It deploys both matter and ideas in a way that is more precise and certainly less physically cumbersome. At the same time, Wall's panel is prescient about the sensibility--punk and hardcore thrash mixed with disorganized countercultural attitudes going back through the
Hippies to the Beats--that has only just lately come to fascinate a world-wide audience in the music of bands from neighboring Seattle such as Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Pearl 'Jam, and (yes, of course) Nirvana: one can thank Kurt Cobain of the last for the descriptive coinage "Kerou-wacky." Smells like Teen Spirit would have given Wall a good alternative title.
10. Theodor Adorno, "Letter to Walter Benjamin" in Ronald Taylor, ed., Aesthetics and Politics, London: Verso, 1977, pp. 129-30.
11. Walter Benjamin, "Reply," in ibid., p. 136.
Thomas Crow is a professor of history of art at the University of Sussex. He is the author of Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
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COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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