Glenstone surveys the career of master photographer Jeff Wall – The Washington Post

When you see one of Jeff Wall’s large-format photographs reproduced in a book or newspaper, detail is lost. That’s inevitable. But something else is lost, too: the irony or wry, gothic humor, the self-subverting postmodern wink. That loss underscores how essential scale is to Wall’s work, and how his images function in two distinct modes — one multifaceted and complex, the other direct, journalistic and often shocking.
If you have a chance to look through the catalogue before visiting the Jeff Wall exhibition at Glenstone in Potomac, Md. — the largest U.S. survey of his career in almost 15 years — compare your first impression with the photographs as they were meant to be seen, often reproduced as transparencies illuminated from behind and spanning nine or 10 feet wide. You may not notice the sleeping figures at the lower left in an image of man throwing a knife against wall in “Knife throw,” or the starfish and sea life teeming in the water that fills a hole in “The Flooded Grave,” or the soldier pointing to a gaping wound in “Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986”).
Once you see these details, you can’t unsee them. But once you do, the photographs become much more about the games we play with images and photography, and much less about their ostensible content. Their “meta” value goes up, while their documentary value may seem to collapse like a house of cards. That is surely the intent. Wall wants to seduce you, and then undermine first and second impressions, often leaving a sense of tension between the title of the image — “An Eviction,” “Boy falls from tree” — and its larger complexity.
Wall emerged as an artist in the 1970s, producing images that were hyper alert to art history and subtly conceptual at the same time. This was, as the critic Andy Grundberg argues in his new book, “How Photography Became Contemporary Art,” a key moment in the history of photography, when it transcended its status as a problematic subset of art and became a core, even dominant presence in contemporary art galleries. It did so by incorporating all the philosophical and aesthetic ambitions of painting, sculpture, film and other media. And in the process, it also became highly self-conscious, and decidedly postmodern.
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Wall designed many of his best-known works since 1978 to be displayed in light boxes, on transparencies lit from behind, which gives them the glowing urgency of film. Their scale, and their careful construction — he stages his work with the care of a cinema auteur — also lead to comparison to film.
But spend a little time looking at them, and you realize they are distinctly different from the experience of a movie. They are, obviously, static, and if you stand in front of them, you won’t see your shadow disrupting the projector’s light. You can move around in the image, focusing on details, in ways that aren’t possible with a moving image. And there’s no promise of resolving their ambiguity. Film often has narrative to move you to a certain sense of finality. Wall’s photographs seem stolen from a narrative timeline with no backstory, or denouement in the offing.
On one level — let’s call it the journalistic level of seeing his photographs reproduced on the page — Wall seems to be a passionate social critic. “An Eviction,” made in 1988, shows one of the persistent and most terrifying failures of capitalism: housing insecurity. A man is being strong-armed by sheriffs, outside of what is presumably the home he has just lost. “Mimic,” from 1982, shows racism in action, as a White man presses his middle finger to his temple as he passes an Asian man on the street.
Other images grapple with poverty, the trauma of war, the status of women. But most of them also include some element, some detail, that either introduces comedy or aesthetic self-consciousness, in ways that leave you uncertain about the seriousness of the social critique.
The soldier showing his gaping wound in “Dead Soldiers Talk” references a long history in Christian iconography of displaying wounds — the spear wound to Jesus on the cross or the stigmata of St. Francis. But it also is a slightly ridiculous gesture that spreads its comedy all around it, such that the “dead” soldiers seem not so much animated corpses but actors taking a break between scenes. Is this about war, or about an industry that uses make-believe to recast war as entertainment?
The question for viewers, and the central challenge of Wall’s work, is whether these postmodern twists can coexist with the social critique, or fatally subvert it. I think it is a matter of style, meaning that it simply isn’t Wall’s style to say things in a straightforward way. The irony, the gamesmanship of referentiality and humor, are part of the work’s basic message. He is saying, simultaneously, something simplistic but important — racism is toxic — and something complex but relatively arcane — don’t believe this image, don’t take anything literally, don’t trust first impressions.
That “style” is mostly out of style, today. We are inclined to test images for their veracity, their sincerity and how they represent the identity of the person who made them. As social fissures deepen, irony is outmoded. The journalistic content is paramount, while the aesthetic byways and detours seem more like unnecessary extra mileage.
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There is one notable exception to this in the show, and it is one of the most recent of the 75-year-old Canadian artist’s works on display. “Mother of pearl,” made in 2016, shows a girl staring at luminous white disks on a desk, in a room full of what seem to be mementos of her parents or grandparents.
None of its details take on the subversive power of other works in the exhibition. The lighting, the girl’s simple, perhaps reverential pose, the audible sense of quietness in the image — everything here seems to be just what it is. There are, no doubt, references to art historical tropes, perhaps to images that remind of us of the brevity of life, or even penitence. But the referentiality isn’t in the foreground, and it doesn’t detract from the basic sense of tenderness and love that pervades the scene.
Not only is it a recent work, it also is one of the smallest. That keeps the viewer at a slight distance. It is mesmerizing, but not overwhelming. We seem to have moved from images where the devil is in the details to an acknowledgment that it is the little things in life that matter. I like that development in Wall’s work, and hope there is more of it.

Jeff Wall Through February at Glenstone Museum, 12100 Glen Rd., Potomac, Md. glenstone.org.
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