Alexandra Oliver, PhD Candidate, History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh
The Vancouver artist Jeff Wall (b. 1949) has become internationally celebrated (and sometimes criticized) for his dramatic, large-scale photographic transparencies. Wall stages his scenes using painterly and cinematic methods and models to achieve, paradoxically, a spontaneous “documentary” look. The richness of Wall’s sources, from Velázquez to Stanley Kubrick, has generated an enormous literature, but curiously, has yielded comparatively thin interpretations.
As even Michael Fried admits, Wall’s work is notoriously difficult. But rather than proposing a “better” or “more complete” interpretation, this paper takes this difficulty and failure as the starting-point for a twofold argument: first, that Wall’s selection and use of sources blocks precisely the kind of interpretation that ought to be enabled by identifying them. Second, that this peculiar interpretive difficulty can be best understood as a form of realism. Drawing on textual evidence (artist’s interviews and writings), realism scholarship and critical theory, I argue that Wall’s realism goes beyond his “documentary” look or everyday subject matter and actually resides in a proposed reconfiguration between subject and object.
This argument is part of a larger dissertation project on realism in contemporary photo-based art, in which I develop an alternative account of realism based not on the familiar and hopelessly contradictory terms of identity, adequacy or “fit” between representation and reality, but rather on terms of non-identity, discontinuity, and excess. The dissertation puts this revised realism to work in the service of an ethical aesthetics, something that continues to occupy avant-garde energies today.