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Jeff Wall - Biography

Jeff Wall (b. 1946) is a Canadian artist, known for his pioneering photography and writing on art history. Since the early 1970’s Jeff Wall has been a key player in the Canadian art world. In the early 1980’s Jeff Wall helped define what is called the Vancouver School of conceptual, or post-conceptual, photography. His Mimic (1982) still stands as one of the prototypes for the school’s mantra. In 2007, Wall finally published Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews, a collection of essays and interviews amassed over 25 years. Jeff Wall’s work has been widely recognized, especially in North America, where he has received numerous awards – including the Hasselblad Award, in 2002, and the Audian Prize for Lifetime Achievement, in 2008, – distinctions – including being made a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, in 2006, and being named an Officer of the Order of Canada, in 2007, – at MOMA, SFMOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, and TATE Modern.

Jeff Wall studied at the University of British Columbia. He graduated in 1970 with a thesis entitled: Berlin Dada and the Notion of Context. He then attended the Courtland Institute, in London, from 1970-73, where he studied with Manet expert T.J. Clark. Jeff Wall then moved to Halifax, and worked as an assistant professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, from 1974-5, before returning west, to become an assistant professor at Simon Frasier University, where he taught from 1976-87.   Following his time at Simon Frasier, Jeff Wall began to lecture at the University of British Columbia, and more recently, he has held lectures at the European Graduate School.

While much modern art is spectacle, Wall work thinly veils a certain sophistication and substance, which may be due to his academic background in art history, and his often evidenced theoretical and literary curiosity. In review, the New Yorker wrote: “Academic thinking today suffuses the practice of art, and Wall’s sensibility reflects this self-conscious knowingness. (He’s catnip for critics.)” Wall has both published in journals such as the Oxford Art Journal, and has been the subject of numerous other serious publications, such as Jeff Wall: Photographs, edited by Achim Hochdorfer, Manet’s Mirror and Jeff Wall’s Picture of Women: Reflection or Refraction?, by Naomi Merritt, and Towards the Reinvigoration of the Western Tableau: Some Notes on Jeff Wall and Duschamps, by Michael Newman. Of all his influences, the one of Charles Baudelaire is one of the most pronounced. Baudelaire, famously, sought to find a cetain unity between art and the then modern world of Paris in the nineteenth century. Simply put, Wall’s work examines conceptual expression through narrative and subject matter, typically focusing on perhaps mundane, or perhaps simply overlooked, everyday phenomena. In general his work reveals an indisputable contrast with most over-saturated contemporary art. The trade is simple, loud and yet vacuous bursts and spectacle are replaced with a simple and yet sophisticated and pre-meditated dwelling and analysis on the very notion of art, conceptualization and ‘everyday life’, and perhaps most interestingly, the very distinction, if there is one, between the two.

Inspired by Baudelaire, Wall appropriated back-lit advertisements into his photographs. Many of his most famous works involve a superimposition of semi-transparent photographs and fluorescent light-boxes, which back-light them. From interviews, we know that the technique arose from bus shelters, but the concept, certainly, involves something other than simple imitation. Wall has admitted that his photographs are the result of detailed planning and days, sometimes weeks, of rehearsals and shooting. He has claimed, and been interpreted as often playing with the notion that implicit in every photograph is the sense of what happened before the moment depicted and what may happen after. Wall has expressed the proposition that artwork which holds merely one clear meaning is either dull or propagandistic, and that good art, to be appreciated as such, must be beautiful in order hold a viewer's attention. Wall’s often uses traditional paintings as casts for his compositions, as if ‘what belongs to art’ can be sensed, or perhaps deduced, behind that which ’belongs to life’.  Of course, the contemporary obsession with morality, individuality, and culture or personal history, attributes these elements of Wall’s work as being nothing more than the result of his ‘childhood dreams’ of being a painter, or his replacement of art with life. A careful and patient, if not sophisticated, look reveals something quite other, namely, one does not come at the cost of the other, rather, the two are held in relation by a third element.  

In 1978, Wall laboured on The Destroyed Room. The first impression is that the work examines the relationship between art and destruction, or states some blissful unity between perfection and chaos, as if that is all art is – a wholesale negation of what is. Instead of such simplistic ‘readings’, one ought to consider Wall’s own words: “My first pictures like The Destroyed Room emerged from a re-encounter with nineteenth-century art”, the piece in question being The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) by Eugène Delacroix, which depicts the Assyrian monarch on his deathbed, commanding the destruction of his possessions and slaughter of his concubines in a last act of defiance against invading armies. Wall openly admits, and exposes, that the room is staged, as he says “through the door you can see that it’s only a set held up by supports, that this is not a real space, this is no-one’s house”. Of course it is a set, but Wall’s emphasis is not merely that there is nothing outside the set, or that it is just a set, but that the outside itself becomes the outside in virtue of the set, fabricated as it is, and thus, that without the fabrication there is neither set nor the untempered real outside. The point being, as it is in all of his back-lit photographs, that there is not only that they are fabrications and that there is nothing behind them grounding them, but that the illusion that there is is a function of the fabrication in front of it. Again: not two, and certainly not one, but always three.


His 1979 work, Picture for Women, is well accounted for, if not in its philosophical sensitivity, by Tate Modern: “Picture for Women was inspired by Edouard Manet's masterpiece A Bar at the Folies-Bergères (1881–82). In Manet's painting, a barmaid gazes out of frame, observed by a shadowy male figure. The whole scene appears to be reflected in the mirror behind the bar, creating a complex web of viewpoints. Wall borrows the internal structure of the painting, and motifs such as the light bulbs that give it spatial depth. The figures are similarly reflected in a mirror, and the woman has the absorbed gaze and posture of Manet's barmaid, while the man is the artist himself. Though issues of the male gaze, particularly the power relationship between male artist and female model, and the viewer's role as onlooker, are implicit in Manet's painting, Wall updates the theme by positioning the camera at the centre of the work, so that it captures the act of making the image (the scene reflected in the mirror) and, at the same time, looks straight out at us. The seam running down the middle of the photograph is apparent in some of Wall's large-scale pictures, where two pieces of transparency are joined. The fact that it serves as a reminder of the artifice of picture making is something that Wall has come to appreciate: 'The join between the two pictures brings your eye up to the surface again and creates a dialectic that I always enjoyed and learned from painting... a dialectic between depth and flatness. Sometimes I hide it, sometimes I don't', he has said: ”I think a new kind of art has emerged since the ‘70’s, a kind that is easier to appreciate, more like entertainment, more attached to media attitudes. The new contemporary art has by now become the dominant form. It’s much closer to entertainment and depends on production value and on spectacle in a way that serious art never did before.”

New York Magazine writes: “Wall is an exciting figure because, to put it bluntly, he hasn’t made the capitulations characteristic of contemporary art. Now the subject of a retrospective organized by Peter Galassi for MoMA and Neal Benezra for SFMoMA (and also the subject of a gallery show at Marian Goodman), Wall, who is 60, seems very much of our moment. Yet he cultivates a living relationship to the great Western tradition, struggles to create rigorous formal compositions, and takes subject matter seriously. All at once.”

Jeff Wall has been the subject of numerous shows, especially of late, presumably because of precisely the characterization of him given by New York Magazine. Recent solo shows of Jeff include: Jeff Wall: Exposure, held at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, Germany (2007), Jeff Wall, held at multiple art institutes in the United States, including: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois and the San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, California (2007). In 2005 Wall’s work was the subject of an exhibition at Tate Modern, London, England, as well as the Schaulager Museum, Basel, Switzerland. Both exhibitions showed Jeff Wall, Photographs 1978-2004. In 2004 the Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo, Norway, also held a solo show to exhibit Wall’s work.

Along with the prizes listed earlier, Wall has earned the Paul de Hueck and Norman Walford Career Achievement Award for Art Photography (2001), the Ontario Arts Council, Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography (2002), the Roswitha Haftmann Prize for the Visual Arts, (2003), and the prize given by the Goteborgs Museum of Art, Gothenburg, Sweden.

Jeff Wall is a Canadian artist. (September 29, 1946 - ).