Musings on Photography

Another Brick in the Wall

Posted in landscape, the art world by Paul Butzi on February 26, 2007

 

Well, it seems like everyone has something to say about the NYT piece on Jeff Wall.  Lots of comments on the art theory of his work.  Lots of comments along the lines of “He’s not an artist, he’s a crab with good PR”.

Beyond observing that Wall’s work doesn’t seem to represent good value as an object (Do you have any idea of what a wonderful art collection you could assemble with the price of ONE of Wall’s photographs?), I’d comment on this:

Having chosen not to live in an art capital like New York or London, Wall professes that he could just as easily have lived anywhere, with little effect on his work. “One thing I hate with small cities is the myth of their specialness,” he says. “It’s like in Europe, everywhere has its own ham, its own wine, its own cheese, and they’re all nice, but it doesn’t interest me.” He is after “the indeterminate American look,” which he says he can find by not looking for anything in particular. “You have to forget about the idea of the spirit of the place,” he says. “It’s one of the big, consoling myths of people who live nowhere.”

Here’s my observation on that, speaking as a person who, beyond having visited art capitals like New York and London, has a lot of entry and exit stamps in his passport.  I’ve visited places which were widely considered Important Places.  I’ve visited places which I’m sure would be considered ‘nowhere’ by Wall (and I live in just such a place, in fact).  I’ve been to small cities, large cities, medium cities.  In fact, having spent twelve months traveling in a motorhome with my family, visiting all 49 continental states and every Canadian province and territory except Newfoundland, I’m pretty confident that I’ve seen a heck of a lot more of ‘America’ than Wall has.

And, speaking as a photographer who works almost entirely within the landscape genre, if there’s a myth it’s that there are places which are ‘nowhere’.  Every place, every single damn place I’ve visited has had its own character, its own feel, its own process and history.  Anyone who thinks there’s a single ‘indeterminate American look’ does not have the smallest clue about the staggering diversity of places that fall under the broad category of ‘America’. It’s like looking at Tuscany in Italy, the Bavarian Alps, and London, and claiming you’re seeing ‘an indeterminate European look’.  It’s arrant nonsense.  Trust me, there’s no more similarity between, say, West Quoddy Head, Maine and Niobrara, Nebraska than there is between San Gimignano in Tuscany and Tintagel in Cornwall.  And I say you can trust me because I’ve been to all four places.

To return to the subject of this morning’s post, the problem that afflicts Wall (actually, it’s more like ONE of the problems that afflicts Wall) is that he’s been looking at places, and he’s been too quick to apply the ‘indeterminate America’ label, and as soon has he’s applied the label, he doesn’t look more closely.  He’s like the mother in the anecdote, pointing at a wide variety of different fish, and telling her daughter “Look at the fish!”.

11 Responses

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  1. Anita Jesse said, on February 26, 2007 at 7:20 pm

    I am more and more grateful for the commonsense commentary of Paul Butzi. Thank you, Paul for speaking out for those of us who love the special qualities of each place whether it be an “important” city such as Los Angeles or the important-to-some-of-us “wide spots in the road” such as Wimberly, Texas. While I live in Los Angeles, I deeply appreciate Wimberly and what makes it special. Indeed, perhaps Mr. Wall needs to look a little more closely. I think “arrant nonsense” sums it up quite nicely, thank you.

  2. Ed Richards said, on February 26, 2007 at 7:47 pm

    I think Wall is doing a terrific job of stirring up buzz. (Or is that Butzi?) Whether it is a pose, or deeply held belief, it certainly suits his interests to get folks everywhere but New York mad at him.

  3. Colin Jago said, on February 27, 2007 at 1:56 am

    If Wall had stopped at ‘the differences don’t interest me’ then fine, so the differences don’t interest you. They interest me. I like ham.

    However, to go on to denigrate the differences seems to be a different level of thinking altogether. It is more akin to saying ‘I know I’m not interested in the differences, so don’t bother me with the petty details. I’m not going to pay attention anyway’. Kerchung. Closed mind/eyes.

    In the end, if he lives a rich rewarding life ignoring the differences then good for him. I just wish people weren’t taking him so seriously (which I presume is because of the prices that he charges).

  4. [...] has been a lot of chatter online about the recent NYTimes profile of Jeff Wall (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here), but I’m the first to make this [...]

  5. Dan Estabrook said, on February 28, 2007 at 9:44 am

    Although I’ve never even been much of a fan of Jeff Wall, I am amazed at the levels of defensiveness the popularity of his work creates… I’ll address just one of your points, if I may, though there are a few that seem ill-considered. Regarding the “the indeterminate American look,” you seem to be confused between someone out to document America and an artist working with metaphor. Wall is clearly after _creating_ a “nowhere” to suggest the prevasiveness of undocumented workers. Why does he need to care about the specialness of West Quoddy Head? If an artist wanted to paint a boat on the sea, does it matter how many varieties of fish live below?

  6. Colin Jago said, on February 28, 2007 at 10:28 am

    If an artist wanted to paint a boat on the sea, does it matter how many varieties of fish live below?

    Hmm, I think that it is difficult to be only observant and curious about some things.

    Whilst it might literally be the case that it is possible to paint a boat on the sea without understanding the ‘sea’ part, I find it unlikely that anybody who really looks at the sea doesn’t begin to get a little understanding about the fish.

    There is a big difference between a conceptual model of the sea which includes the thought ‘and hang the details’, and an observational model of the sea.

    The use of the ‘hang the details’ route doesn’t stop a picture being interesting, but it does stop it being about the sea.

  7. Paul Butzi said, on February 28, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    Although I’ve never even been much of a fan of Jeff Wall, I am amazed at the levels of defensiveness the popularity of his work creates… I’ll address just one of your points, if I may, though there are a few that seem ill-considered.

    Well, your sophistry is amusing, at least. I don’t discuss the popularity of Wall’s work, nor do I even discuss Wall’s work at all. In fact, the only thing I discuss is the quoted section of the NYT article. I’m a little confused why you feel this is ‘defensive’; perhaps you are confusing ‘being defensive’ with ‘disagreeing’.

    Perhaps you’d have more success if you addressed one of the other, unnamed points you feel are ill-considered.

    Regarding the “the indeterminate American look,” you seem to be confused between someone out to document America and an artist working with metaphor. Wall is clearly after _creating_ a “nowhere” to suggest the prevasiveness of undocumented workers.

    You seem to have confused “disagreeing with Wall’s quoted statement” with “criticizing the philosophical underpinnings of Wall’s work”. Just for the record, the post you’ve commented on is doing the former, and not the latter.

    That is, I don’t discuss Wall’s intent. You could well be right that Wall is interested in working with metaphor. I neither know nor care. My understanding of Wall’s work doesn’t matter, really, because I’m not responding to Wall’s work, or even Wall’s working methods. Other folks have done that ad nauseum, and I don’t really have much to contribute to that particular verbal fisticuff.

    The ONLY thing I’m doing is responding to one of Wall’s statements, quoted in the NYT article, with which I disagree.

    So, while it’s quaint that you assume that anyone who disagrees with Wall must be confused, it’s not really relevant.

    Why does he need to care about the specialness of West Quoddy Head?

    Wall doesn’t need to care about the specialness of any place. He’s perfectly free to make art that doesn’t reflect reality. I happen to think that’s the artistic equivalent to onanism, but that’s just my opinion.

    Look, it’s really very simple. Wall made a statement about “spirit of a place” calling it the “one of the big, consoling myths of people who live nowhere”. I disagreed with that statement. I offered support for my disagreement. End of story.

    If an artist wanted to paint a boat on the sea, does it matter how many varieties of fish live below?

    Yes, assuming that the artist wanted to capture the inherent nature of the sea. If, on the other hand, the artist just wanted to depict his defective mental model of the sea, then it wouldn’t make much difference.

  8. Dan Estabrook said, on March 1, 2007 at 5:36 am

    Fair enough on the “defensive” vs. “disagreeing” bit… I’m projecting a lot of what I read on other sites the same day (some of which are very defensive indeed.) Forgive me if it seems out of place. However, looking at your tone as written (“Every place, every single damn place” on to “arrant nonsense”) sounds a wee bit more than calm sophistry yourself! Perhaps I’m still projecting.

    At any rate, you are not just commenting on his statement, you are in fact “responding to Wall’s work” and working methods, saying that it’s foolish and impossible to go after an “indeterminate American look” in his art. What do you think it looks like to most of his viewers? And, as I’m asking, what do these admittedly overlooked and fascinating details of a specific place have to do with his work? Is it really a “defective mental picture” (not defensive, eh?) to play in metaphor in such a way?

    Oh, here’s another ill-considered point, that a Wall doesn’t represent “good value as an object.” While I agree that the machinations and money of the Art World seem crazy (and I certainly would spend that kind of money elsewhere if I had the chance!) There are obviously a lot of people who disagree, to the tune of real ca$h! I’m sure Wall and his dealers – and even some of the “suckers” at the museums who bought into it – feel differently. I don’t necessarily like it either, I’m just quibbling with the judgement.

    At any rate, thanks for the lively and thought-provoking discussion. (Ugh, I hope that doesn’t sound sarcastic, ‘coz I mean it!)

  9. H to the IMO said, on May 4, 2007 at 7:33 am

    I think you’ve got this entirely wrong. Wall is not your type of photographer because he uses the medium in a completely different way than you do. He has no interest in ‘documentary style landscapes’ because he believes that it’s ground well worn.

    I strongly encourage you to look at his picture ‘After Invisible Man’ – that’s all about a specific location and a specific setting: a famous civil-rights era book that describes the author in a room with 1300 lights. Wall got all of the details right – but he recreated the Harlem location in Vancouver.

    Incidentally, Vancouver is far more diverse and more of a multicultural frontier-type town than just about any American city. More than half of the population at this point is Asian.

    I sort of agree with you about the questionable beauty of Wall’s images. But your argument is entirely off base, it’s like you didn’t even read the article and somehow defensively decided to attack a random comment (which he made more or less to avoid getting into politics… it’s a joke to pretend that his photos are not subtly political and somehow attached to Vancouver).

    I think the real challenge is that Wall is more or less doing what he can to bury the tradition of documentary photography. You can still find the Gursky’s and Burtynksy’s of the world working – but to do landscapes at this point you need access to places that most people can’t get to, and a strong project.

    Maybe it’s just a bit too easy to drive somewhere and take a picture. Might have worked for Ansel Adams, but that was a long time ago.

  10. [...] page for this blog, I was browsing back over previous entries and comments, and came across this comment on my post about Jeff [...]

  11. the war on Wall « 島生活。 said, on September 23, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    [...] Paul Butzi對Jeff Wall講nowhereness的看法 [...]


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