Jeff Wall’s exhibition at Marian Goodman was a continuation of the Canadian photographer’s signature approach: using staged scenarios to feign the appearance of straight documentary. His rigor in producing sets that appear totally natural is as legendary as his exacting technical acumen, which was fully apparent in the nine works on display.
The exhibition unfolded in two parts. Occupying the main gallery were six pieces that Wall created in the last two years; an additional three photographs from 2007 hung in a smaller auxiliary room. These latter works, which depict Sicilian landscapes, served as a smart counterpoint to his newer pictures. One might presume hillside and headstone appear as Wall found them, but the details, astutely arranged in these big pictures, suggest the truth might be otherwise.
While there are no humans in the Italian landscapes, people figure prominently in all of Wall’s new pieces, which include one work composed of four small inkjet prints, four enormous C-prints and the most sumptuous silver gelatin print this reviewer has ever seen. At over 9 by 5 feet, Young Man Wet with Rain portrays a teenage boy standing before a nondescript cement wall absently gazing away from the camera in his soaked denim jeans and dripping rain jacket. It was the sole moment of reflection in a collection of photographs wherein most of the subjects are engaged in action. A band performs to a dancing crowd, two boys spar, another boy tumbles from a thick tree limb, a woman poses in a period costume in front of an audience reflected in mirrored doors. No one addresses the camera directly, which is consistent with most of Wall’s orchestrated visual narratives and adds to the inherent theatrics of his work.
Because of its relatively modest scale and the fact that it consists of four photographs—each a different size—the most surprising piece was Authentication. Claus Jahnke, costume historian, examining a document relating to an item in his collection (2010). It presents a seated man studying old documents, two close-ups of similar documents and a white collarless shirt on a hanger. Rather than pack all the narrative power into one image, Wall breaks the flow into multiple discrete shots. In the quotidian scenes repre- sented as well as the linear arrangement of the prints, this work recalls the photographic short stories of Paul Graham, as seen in his 12-volume A Shimmer of Possibility (SteidlMACK, 2007). The four-photo work could be a microcosm of Wall’s oeuvre; the pictures complement one another, but they are also succinct on their own. It’s as if Wall created a self-contained exhibition inside a larger one.
Photo: Jeff Wall: Authentication. Claus Jahnke, costume historian, examining a document relating to an item in his collection, 2010, four inkjet prints, left to right: 17 1/2 inches square, 28 3/4 by 35 1/4 inches, 23 1/2 inches square, 41 1/4 by 27 1/2 inches; at Marian Goodman.