Never knowingly underrated – his was the sole photographic contribution to a recent Phaidon book about art history – Canadian photographer Jeff Wall is best known for his imposingly large colour transparencies that evoke scenes from unmade films. For his first UK show since a 2005 Tate retrospective, Wall has filled the lower half of the White Cube in Mason’s Yard, SW1 with a selection of his lesser-known black and white photos.
Drained of the punchy and impressionistic colour that marks his familiar work, the seven images contrast unoccupied locations and object profiles (Fortified door, pictured) with depictions of human interaction in the built environment. The most vivid, Men waiting, shows a group of labourers waiting for work on a frosty morning; the aimless gazes, seemingly (and, knowing Wall’s methods, quite probably) arranged in a tableau of unordered loneliness, are set underneath an expansive, moody sky.
In War Game a brilliantly captured moment renders a children’s backyard game into something far more sinister; the laughter on a “soldier’s” face as he guards his captives evoking photographs from Abu Ghraib. Unfortunately, the White Cube’s bright lights are harsh, and the detail on some is lost to reflections.
Upstairs in the gallery are three colour pieces, which fare better under the lighting conditions. The most interesting, Dressing poultry is a tableau of three farmers preparing chickens for transportation to market. The centre one laughs riotously, her flesh similar in colour to the bird carcasses that hang from nooses in the corner, gravity distending them into a comically grotesque waving gesture like something out of Eraserhead. Interestingly, for a photographer so well known for his montage techniques and lengthy assemblage process, this shot was not stitched together but instead taken with in a single frame on a two-day visit to the farm. It hints at an escape for Wall from his normally methodical working style, and simultaneously makes his case as one of the most important photographers working today.
The exhibition is on at White Cube Mason’s Yard, SW1, until January 19th 2008. Entry is free.
Image of “Fortified door” courtesy of the gallery