Friday, November 9, 2007

Jeff Wall

Jeff Wall, Picture for Women, 1979

Most of us see art mainly in reproduction; it's a blessing and a curse. But if you're used to seeing Jeff Wall that way, his current retrospective - now at SFMOMA - will hold some surprises for you. Not the least of which might be the monumental cheesiness of it all.

The truth is that it's virtually impossible to disassociate Wall's lightbox format from the advertising displays that were its source. The consequence is a disorienting sense of having been transported from an art museum to that cathedral of 21st century anomie - the airport.

At the same time, the artificiality of Wall's display format perfectly complements the contrived nature of the photographs. I've complained before about Wall's contrivance - here, for example - but I take it all back now. In fact, I think it's essential to the ultimate success of the work that we know it was staged.

Also essential is the triviality of Wall's subject matter. Lots of subjects would be ludicrous in this format, but Wall's pedestrians and disco kids work just fine. If these photographs weren't staged, you might feel compelled to wonder why he took them. The fact that he made them up somehow obviates that question. Like reality tv, you know they were meant to be cheesy.

But simultaneously cheesy and pretentious as it is, this show works. Refracted through our knowledge that each of these scenes is the premeditated creation of the artist, the trivial subjects and grandiose displays set up an emotional reverberation that is sometimes annoying, sometimes boring, but often thrilling.

At SFMOMA until January 27.

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