Jeff Wall: Tableaux, Pictures, Photographs, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Jeff Wall pioneered large-scale photography, transcending the classical into the contemporary. His critically acclaimed work, produced in the form of colour transparencies displayed in lightboxes since the 1980s, was inspired by the backlit advertisements found at bus stops in Europe. The Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam highlights his oeuvre since 1996, featuring over 40 works in his second exhibition with the museum, entitled Jeff Wall: Tableaux, Pictures, Photographs, 1996–2013. At first, the scale and presentation of the photographs of commonplace scenes are impressive, but it is their enigmatic element that make them magnetic. The artist captures pop culture in a classical sense. His tableaux, with the potential to transform into 19th and 20th century master paintings, illuminate the allusions to art historical and philosophical notions of representation.

The lightbox presentation adds an extra dimension to the photographs, an almost dioramic effect that stems from Wall’s first exhibition in 1978 where he enclosed The Destroyed Room in a plaster wall in a storefront window. The large-scale format makes it seem as if these are windows he has walked by at just the right time to capture a photograph. Instead, they are mostly framed cinematic and staged moments of Vancouver, in an amalgamation of natural beauty, urban decay and postmodernism contextualised in an unvarnished industrial cityscape.

Wall also figuratively shines light on these scenes, bringing to the surface themes surrounding relationships between men and women and nature versus metropolis. These photographs are more than representations and reconstructions of Wall’s experiences, they are an agent for social commentary on violence and cultural miscommunication. The lightboxes become almost sculptural at the Stedelijk, and the layout of his works in the gallery draws the viewer from room to room, eager to see the next scene and the photographs’ fantastical, magical and oddly tense auras.

It was in 1996 that Wall’s artistic practice shifted to the production of black-and-white prints on paper with elements of documentary. Though each image is independent, they were all created by photographic techniques that result in realism with a bit of chicanery. Orientation plays a pivotal role in viewing Wall’s photographs. The exhibition as whole can be read as a stream of stills, yet stepping up to the pieces individually sets the viewer into the scene, whether it be as voyeur or even an intentionally staged character.

Highlights of the exhibition include Boxing, Boy Falls from Tree, In Front of a Nightclub and Summer Afternoons (2013) the never-before-seen diptych with its bold color palette and nude female imagery, which has been said to mimic Edward Hopper. One can note why Wall’s previous work was referred to by Susan Sontag as “exemplary in its thoughtfulness and power” and understand his influential impact on the Düsseldorf group and, on a greater scale, the realm of contemporary photography.

Jeff Wall: Tableaux, Pictures, Photographs, 1996–2013, until 3 August, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Museumplein 10, 1071 DJ Amsterdam.

Ashton Chandler

1. Jeff Wall, In Front of a Nightclub, 2006, courtesy van de kunstenaar.
1. Installation shot, Jeff Wall, courtesy of Gert Jan van Rooij.