Friday, March 02, 2007

Jeff Wall, Elmer Fudd, and the Magic Flute

Oh Bwun Hilda, you are so wuv-ly!

I love opera, love the exaggeration, the camp, the over-the-top plotlines and the musical spectacle. When you are feeling blue, what better cures that Road Runner dropping an anvil on Wile E. Coyote (Super Genius), Bogart telling Bergman they'll always have Paris, Pa-pa-pa-pa - Papageno meeting Papagena. I live for the larger than life.

Jeff Wall's canvases are projections of light, oversized photographs hanging like tapestries on the walls of, say, the The Museum of Modern Art in New York (the web exhibit is fantastic as well). This is photography as soap opera, Bugs Bunny cartoon, Times Square, vaudeville. It's also commentary on performance in daily life, each tableau a staged view of the world that, like opera, carries me away only to plunk me back down on West 53rd street with a sense of exhilaration and confusion. Jeff Wall is Neverland for the eyes.

One of my favorites of his (visible on the Moma site), is called "Mimic." A tall, white guy, holding hands with his girlfriend, pushes up his eyebrow in a racist mocking of a Chinese fellow, who is just walking along. It looks like an album cover – all three figures are bathed in pink, as if sunburnt. The expression on the face of the Chinese man is perfect, annoyance, defiance, and yet you still feel his personality just prior to this moment – he'd been out on a stroll, one hand in his pocket. It's a movie scene -- Crash in a single photograph.

Such stagecraft is not for everyone. Over at The Spark of Accident, Jon Anderson compares Wall's artificial compositions to similar themes explored by photographers who left their studios and found images out in the world. Anderson has a point that Wall may have been too influential – since Wall's appearance, journalistic street photography has not gotten the props it deserves. I can't quite agree with Anderson's conclusion, based on comparison of Wall's images with those of those who venture out of doors:

In each case it seems to me that the hunted image as opposed to the contrived image presents the more complex narrative and is richer in meaning, more open and more mysterious.

Admittedly, Anderson has found some fantastic naturalistic photographers. But I'm not sure I find real life preferable to its caricatures (which perhaps explains my fondness for online expression). Good art to me is a bit like mathematical modeling – it finds an elegance in life, a stripped down, organized version of what will always be deep quotidian complexity. Anderson revels in the "tradition whose reliance on the flux of life virtually guarantees its unending interest," but I hold that artifice is necessary to art. If you liked "The Gates," you'll probably like Jeff Wall.
Indeed, painting may be the best comparison for what Wall does. Raul Gutierrez puts a Wall photograph up next to a Hokusai print. Both images feature paper spreading to the winds, but Wall's color sense is also Hokusai-inspired, and the floating world reference calls to mind a further comparison – Kabuki. Gutierrez has some great links to reviews (including a recent New York Times Magazine love-in), and I can only agree with his thesis that Wall's work "has enlarged the range and scope of what people accept as art photography." (For specifics, check out what eclectique has to say…).

In Jeff Wall's self portrait, two of him stare at you. His take on the opening scene of Ellison's The Invisible Man has a forest of lightbulbs hanging into a cramped room. When you rip open a Wall mattress, it in fact bleeds. Give me this world of trickery and light – give me exploding jars of milk and scattered paper, photographs that echo painting, poetry that stuns me like movies, movies that undo me like music. Let pictures sing like the Queen of the Night, or rage in full silliness like Elmer Fudd grabbing his spear and magic helmet: "Kill the wabbit!"


august said...

Would anybody object if I changed preferences to include more posts on the front page? We're a bit more prolific than we have been in the past, and there are a number of things that I'd like to keep visible.

Also, if Dawn and Keif don't object, I might go back and re-edit Book Club discussions so that each post includes links to the others. Are people finished with the book? I've been holding back...

topazz said...

august, wouldn't it be interesting if you could somehow set up the blog to resemble more of a newspaper layout, rather than the straight linear one all blogs now have to use? I'm thinking of the Onion's format, but guess it isn't possible or more blogs would've done it.

Keifus said...

I don't object.

It's not by any means my medium, but I did like Wall's use of sunlight. It was everywhere, even in the closed rooms. (Is he from LA or something?) Brought out the whites and greens and pinks. I liked the photo of the guy pushing on the door--those pavement-level hatches harbor some fascination for me. They're like portals to secret underground worlds...

(and any reminder of Bugs and Wagner is always apropos)


Dawn Coyote said...

I've done this cookie-blocking thing on a friend's advice, and navigation on my computer has become dial-up slow. I can't remember how to undo it. I'm going to call him and figure it out so that I can go look at the moma site.

I bet you would have loved the musical production of Crime and Punishment that I saw a couple of years ago.

That's a great idea. No objections from me.

august said...

Okay, I changed from 16 to 25 posts on the main page. I'll change it back if you want, but I think it's worth it to give newcomers a slightly larger sample of the diversity of the site.

topazz -- it's possible, but remember that the layout for newspapers changes with each issue. That would be quite a lot of work, time I think probably better spent on posting. I don't quite know what you have in mind.