He has been compared to Goya and Duchamp, and has (indirectly, at least) compared himself to Picasso. He photographs artificial scenes of modern life and draws inspiration from Velázquez, Manet, and Delacroix. He stages a photograph of people lining up outside a nightclub and somehow makes it allude to Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) or Degas’ renderings of 19th century Parisian flâneurs. He combines sophisticated visual acumen with a brazen use of Photoshop to create a fake battle scene in Afghanistan, weirdly reminiscent of a Goya history painting.
But Jeff Wall did not begin his career as a photographer. Not surprisingly, he’s an erudite art historian, educated at the University of British Columbia and at the art historical Mecca that is the Courtauld Institute in London. He also studied under T.J. Clark, one the most renowned and internationally acclaimed scholars of modern art history. So it turns out that, when he references Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (1827) in The Destroyed Room (1978), he knows what he’s doing.
Jeff Wall: The Crooked Path, open through September 11 at the BOZAR in Brussels, examines Wall’s influences and how he interprets them throughout his artistic and technical processes. The artist himself selected 25 of his photographs, drawn from all stages of his nearly 40-year career. In the exhibition, they are displayed alongside a group of artists who have influenced Wall’s creations. Atget, Duchamp, Gursky, Struth, Stella, among many others, have all in some way explored their contemporary subject matter though the lens of the art historical canon.
The Crooked Path thus speaks to Wall’s foremost artistic ambition. He wants photography to measure up to painting’s stature on every platform – thematic approach, aesthetic engagement, scale, and historical perpetuity. Why shouldn’t a photograph of a ventriloquist performing at a birthday party be as monumental as Rembrandt’s Christ Healing the Sick (1649)? Wall rebels against a time when photography was not synonymous with art, while celebrating photography’s continuous potential to represent, critique, and build upon the reality that surrounds it.
At the BOZAR, Wall examines his legacy with relation to a long line of artists who have also made use of art history in their creative practices. Through his engagements with both past and present, Wall demonstrates that reflecting on the past is a necessary – and contemporary – aspect of artistic creation.