Jeff Wall

Vancouver Canada 1946, lives and works in Vancouver

The title is so precise that one could become suspicious of it: Adrian Walker, artist, drawing from a specimen in a laboratory in the Department of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. The work is a large, Cibachrome color slide, lit from behind in a wall casing of plexiglas and aluminum. This form of presentation from the world of advertising seems, with its dominant presence, to be out of place in a museum. Almost all the work of Jeff Wall has this form, though he has made black and white photographs as well.

Adrian Walker... depicts an existing person in a situation that Wall encountered more or less as it was. But it is not a snapshot: Walker’s pose is definitely not coincidental. With his meditative stance Wall alludes to the tranquil figures, engrossed in their activities or musings, that appear in the genre paintings of the eighteenth-century artist Chardin. Wall frequently seeks a connection with historical examples, but he is not a traditionalist. Through the combination of historical and contemporary elements, he creates images that are relevant to our time. By showing figures who are completely absorbed in something, he defends the notion of ‘the inner’ from contemporary theories on ‘the death of the subject’.

In the aforementioned work there is also a contrast between the well-known motif of the artist at work and the clinical, modern environmentof the laboratory. The forearm with exposed muscles is recorded by Wall’s camera with gruesome precision, whereas Walker seems to be asking himself whether his efforts actually matter. The fact that a copy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote is sitting on the window sill has led to speculations as to whether Wall is making a comparison between Adrian Walker’s traditional way of working and the deluded endeavors of Don Quixote. Wall says that the book’s presence is purely coincidental: Walker just happened to be reading it. Whatever the case, in the confrontation between the pensive Walker and the nearly hyper realistic specimen one can clearly see the photographic artist commenting on Walker’s way of working. Nevertheless Walker is by no means portrayed in a condescending or ironic manner. On the contrary, he is given the quiet dignity that characterizes the figures of Chardin as well.

Diagonal Composition, from 1993, is another still life, which does not, however, bring to mind the still lifes of Chardin or other old masters. In the work one sees the edge of a rather grimy sink in a shabby interior: the wide, yellow edge with a piece of soap on it constitutes the primary diagonal of the composition. This line is intersected by an opposite diagonal, this being formed by the back of the sink and a small shelf that is attached to the wall at the right side of the sink.

Here, in a work which appears to consist solely of a formal exercise, Wall refers to art from the 1910s and 20s, such as the Contra-compositions and architectural designs of Theo van Doesburg. A characteristic of this work is the use of diagonals in order to create a dynamic impression. The diagonal contra-compositions were to give rise to a new ‘time-space-architecture’, which would signify a conquest of the mind over nature, which he associated with the rigid horizontals and verticals of Mondrian.

Wall’s dirty sink is, of course, far removed from the utopias of De Stijl and the constructivists. On the one hand, one can say that a sense of their ideals nevertheless shines through in this work; on the other, Wall also shows the considerable contrast between those ideals and the grim, earthly reality.

Jeff Wall discusses his work (SFMoMa)

Jeff Wall in MoMa New York, 2007