Jeff Wall, Canadian (1946 - )

Jeff Wall (born Vancouver September 29 1946) is a Canadian photographer best known for his large-scale back-lit cibachrome photographs and art-historical writing.

Jeff Wall received his MA from the University of British Columbia in 1970, with a thesis titled, "Berlin Dada and the Notion of Context," and did postgraduate work at the Courtauld Institute from 1970-73, where he studied with Manet expert T.J. Clark. Wall was assistant professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (1974-75), associate professor at Simon Fraser University (1976-87) and taught for many years at the University of British Columbia. He has published essays on Dan Graham, Rodney Graham, Roy Arden, Ken Lum, Stephen Balkenhol, On Kawara, and other contemporary artists. Many of these texts are collected in the New York Museum of Modern Art's recent, Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews (NY, 2007).

Wall experimented with conceptual art while an undergraduate student at UBC, producing such works as monochrome paintings made of layers of transparent varnish directly applied to a gallery wall, and the photo/text composite Landscape Manual (UBC Fine Arts Gallery, 1970), which was informed by his close study of the "magazine pieces" of artists like Dan Graham and Robert Smithson. Wall then made no art until 1977, when he produced his first backlit phototransparencies. Many of these pictures are staged and refer to the history of art and philosophical problems of representation. The photographs' compositions often allude to historical artists like Velázquez, Hokusai, and Édouard Manet, or to writers such as Franz Kafka, Yukio Mishima, and Ralph Ellison.

Wall's work advances an argument for the necessity of pictorial art. Some of Wall's photographs are complicated productions involving cast, sets, crews and digital postproduction. They have been characterized as one-frame cinematic productions. Wall distinguishes between unstaged "documentary" pictures, like Still Creek, Vancouver, winter 2003, and "cinematographic" pictures, produced using a combination of actors, sets, and special effects, such as Overpass, 2001. His signature works are large transparencies mounted on light boxes; he says he conceived this format when he saw back-lit advertisements at bus stops during a trip between Spain and London. Since the mid-1990s, Wall has also made large scale black and white photographs, some of which were exhibited at Kassel's Documenta X, as well as smaller color prints.

Mimic (1982) typifies Wall's cinematographic style. A 198 x 226 cm. colour transparency, it shows a white couple and an Asian man walking towards the camera. The sidewalk, flanked by parked cars and residential and light-industrial buildings, suggests a North American industrial suburb. The woman is wearing red shorts and a white top displaying her midriff; her bearded, unkempt boyfriend wears a denim vest. The Asian man is casual but well-dressed in comparison, in a collared shirt and slacks. As the couple overtake the man, the boyfriend makes an ambiguous but apparently obscene and racist gesture, holding his upraised middle finger close to the corner of his eye, "slanting" his eye in mockery of the Asian man's eyes. The picture resembles a candid shot that captures the moment and its implicit social tensions, but is actually a recreation of an exchange witnessed by the artist.

Born, living, and working in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wall has been a key figure in the city's vibrant arts scene for years. Early in his career, he helped define the so-called photoconceptualist paradigm for which Vancouver has become known; he published major essays on the work of his close colleagues and fellow Vancouverites Rodney Graham, Ken Lum and Ian Wallace, and enjoyed a short-lived stint in the Vancouver art rock band UJ3RK5. His tableaux very often take Vancouver's mixture of natural beauty, urban decay and postmodern and industrial featurelessness as their generic backdrop.

In 1996 Jeff Wall was to replace Bernd Becher as head professor of the photography department at the Düsseldorf Academy, but was confronted by a former Becher student who pointed a loaded gun at him. He immediately resigned.

Jeff Wall is a contemporary artist, who has become well-known for his transparencies mounted on light boxes. He has also been involved with more traditional photographic projects. Wall depicts modern subject matter with reference to examples from the history of art. His work has been the focus of numerous well-received museum exhibits around the world. He lives and works in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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