The Tip of the Iceberg – Jeff Wall’s Bad Goods
David and I just returned from a ridiculously snowy trip to Vancouver B.C., primarily to see WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution which runs through January 11 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. My thoughts about the WACK! show are still settling into form, but I do have some quick thoughts about the Jeff Wall exhibition also currently on view. A preeminent Vancouver artist and art writer, Wall is best known for his pioneering use of light boxes to present backlit photographic transparencies, as well as his almost anachronistic adherence to a modernist pictorial tradition, which despite its cinematic sophistication owes more to Manet than Muybridge. The show focuses on a number of recently acquired works, however for me the standout piece is Bad Goods, a photograph from 1985.
This small reproduction from the VAG website does little to convey the monumental scale of the work (that’s about 8 x 12 feet, Yanks!) so I’m glad I had a chance to see it in person. Bad Goods is a perfect example of Wall’s multi-layered approach to image making. Here we are confronted with a desolate post-industrial scene, nestled in the barely visible natural beauty of the mountains in the distance. There are “for sale” signs on the largest building, which is partially obscured by a man-made landscape of unsightly rubble mirroring the snow-capped peaks. A man we may identify as Native American from a traditional motif on his beaded armband returns our gaze from the middle ground. The foreground is dominated by a dropped load of individually wrapped heads of industrially farmed—and virtually nutritionless—iceberg lettuce.
Like many of Wall’s “cinematic” images, Bad Goods is carefully staged to resemble a candid shot. Masterfully masquerading as a mundane scene, there are centuries of Canadian (and American) history and oceans of cultural self-analysis inscribed in every calculated gesture of this frozen moment.
Jeff Wall’s work was particularly interesting in the context of yet another show currently on view at VAG, Rapture and Ruin – Landscape Work from the Collection. A jumble of contemporary and historical works, Rapture and Ruin aims to create a narrative that begins with the romantic experience of the landscape as the direct experience of the sublime and ends with the representation of “ruins” as a testament to the passage of time and the ultimate annihilation of all things man-made. I think the great thing about Jeff Wall’s work is that, at its best, it collapses the notions of “rapture” and “ruin” into one brilliant scenario.
Jeff Wall’s exhibition is on view at Vancouver Art Gallery through January 25, 2009.