Chapter 2 – Never Has a Man Used so Many Words to Say so Little.
In chapter two of Fried’s book, his primary concern is with the absorption vs theatricality argument. He particularly focuses on the absorption side of that battle. He relates three of Wall’s images (portraits?) and one of Gerhard Richter’s paintings (which I find somewhat interesting in that they are paintings and not photographs, yet they do hearken back to photography because of the source images) as well as paintings by Chardin, Caravaggio, and Manet.
For the first half of the chapter, Fried examines Wall’s photograph Adrian Walker, Artist, Drawing From a Specimen in a Labaoratory in the Dept. of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1992. In Wall’s photograph, the viewer is looking in on an artist who is drawing from a preserved arm. The artist does not appear to realize that the camera is present and taking the image. Yet he is neither absorbed in his own drawing nor the object he is drawing from. He is at the point where he has just finished his drawing and is contemplating what he has just accomplished. This is where the absorptive mode that Fried is talking about is exemplified. Adrian Walker is not simply acting out what it is like to be in his world; he is fully engaged with it. This probably has something to do with the fact that this moment, at some point in time has actually existed. Adrian Walker (the actual man in the photo) was an artist who asked the anatomy department if draw from their specimens. Wall says that “there was such a moment in the creation of his drawing, but the moment depicted in the picture is in fact not that moment, but a reenactment of it. Yet it is probably indistinguishable from the actual moment.”
Fried relates Adrian Walker to three paintings by Chardin, however I will only be talking about two of them. The first is of a young draftsman working at a table (which seems to be somehow directly related to Adrian Walker, especially seeing as how Wall has mentioned Chardin by name in an interview.) In this painting, the figure seems to be wholly engrossed by whatever he is drawing, however, instead of being involved in the action of drawing, but instead in a moment of contemplation of the drawing he is creating (perhaps trying to figure out what to do next.)
The other painting is of a young man playing a card game, although the title is The House of Cards. The character in the second of the two paintings seems to be more absorbed in his own activity whereas the character in the first seems to be more along the lines of what Wall is striving to accomplish in his own image. Fried has some theory about the cards in the open drawer, one facing the viewer and one facing away, representing both the acknowledgement of the viewer and the paintings “facingness” (the card facing the viewer) and the absorption and “sealed off consciousness” of the character. And while I too agree there is some meaning in the cards (especially the Jack of Hearts) that are left in the drawer, I don’t think it was intended to mean what Fried thinks.
However, what is important to take away is that many of the images talked about in this chapter create the “fiction that the beholder does not exist.” I think this is an important aspect of Wall’s photographs, because while they create that fiction, by their sheer size and clarity, they also refute the fiction they create. It is a nice duality in the images.
Moving to Wall’s After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue, 1999-2001, we find the same absorptive mode. About the relation between Adrian Walker and “Invisible Man” Fried says, “What the two have in common is that each is ‘a picture of someone engaged in his occupation and not paying any attention to, or responding to the fact that his being observed by the spectator.’” However, “Invisible Man” is different from Adrian Walker in one key way, and that is the setting. This time it is not a found stage, nor is it a redocument of a moment previously experienced. This is the big break between the two images, because where in Adrian Walker we can believe (at least shortly) that the character has no idea we (the viewer) exist, in “Invisible Man” we know that the work is pure fiction, and we are given a large clue in the form of the title relating to a work of fiction, not a “real moment” as in Adrian Walker. Fried says:
Wall…[can] work against the grain of photographic spatialization and world-deprivation – of its address to a subject who ‘looks explicitly’ at the photograph and all it depicts…it is above all the viewer’s awareness of the fact that Wall’s Invisible Man is posing for the camera and that his surrounding s have been laboriously constructed by the photographer…[which] reduces to a minimum any tendency on the part of the viewer to ‘identify’ with the protagonist and on the other actively promotes the kind of imaginative engagement with a philosophical reflection on the larger import of the picture that I have been pursuing here.
Again, in this image, Fried marvels at Wall’s ability to both create the fiction of the character and acknowledge that fiction to the viewer.
What I thought maybe the most interesting part of the chapter came from a quote from Wall himself. When asked by Robert Enright during an interview why a copy of Don Quixote appeared in Wall’s image Adrian Walker, wall replies:
The picture is factual. The man who is named in the title is in fact the person Adrian Walker; that is the corner of the anatomy lab where he worked. It’s all real…I might have moved the lamp over a little bit, but I didn’t change anything. The picture is an example of what I call “near documentary.”
The idea of “near documentary” is something that I think a lot of photographers have been playing with for sometime, however, (and maybe this is just my lack of looking further into the art world) this is the first instance where I have heard the term.
In a recent blog post from Auckland Art Gallery about Wall’s recent work, they make a nice comment about the “near documentary.” They say:
Today, the term ‘documentary’ is used much more hesitantly. Post-modernism caused this shift because new approaches to camera work appeared that validated the trope of ‘fabricated to be photographed’ imagery. Two of the most notable practitioners of this mode of image construction are Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman.
Jeff Wall’s art has recently shifted in its nature and direction. It has become less art historical in its referencing and more connected with an expression of streetwise experience. Jeff has a fascinating show at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York until 21 January 2012. The gallery’s promotion of the show is perceptive: “In these new works the artist continues to address the neo-realist and near-documentary concerns at the core of his practice for the past decades.”
Near-documentary? Marian Goodman’s press-release further states that Wall’s art is a “hybrid integration of the documentary and the cinematographic, the ‘street’ and the monumental, two directions he has pursued simultaneously, while being partial to neither.”
This is a really interesting method of working to me, probably because it again relates somewhat to the ways I have thought about my own working process. I can think of a couple other artists that work or have worked in this vein at one point or another.
The first that comes to mind is Gursky. While not finding models to pose in his images, the images are constructed through many exposures to create scenes that could be real, yet they sit on the cusp of being believable as “real.”
Another artist I can think of is Angela Strassheim, who has (at least for one body of work) recreated moments from her own childhood. Staged moments reinterpreting past experiences. Her images have a “caught-in-the-momentness” (I am becoming Friedarian), however, when seeing her images at scale and clarity, the viewer questions how these images could have been captured without the characters in the image realizing the camera was there.
And while these two examples have a similar kind of “precieved reality” that Wall’s photos do, the bodies of work waiver to and from those types of images whereas Wall’s photos all exhibit the same perceptual duality.