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Canadian artist Jeff Wall has long enjoyed star status for his profound examination of photography’s relationship to reality, while bringing it into ever-closer dialogue with the long history of pre-photographic pictorial art. Wall’s apparently everyday scenes from modern life are often the product of elaborate staging, yet the generic, real-world nature of his subjects encourages us to see them as honest depictions of life – placing photography at an uncanny junction between cinema and painting, and between documentary and narrative.
At Mason’s Yard, two series of images present contrasting aspects of Wall’s work. Three photographs are from a visit to Sicily, two of which are images of landscapes. There’s an almost hallucinatory detail to these pictures of stony scrubland slopes, but while one rehearses the cliché of classical landscape painting (plus modern-day pylons), the other verges on abstract ‘field’ painting – a dry pun, perhaps.
If these are snapshots pretending to be paintings, then the others are stage-sets pretending to be snapshots. Or are they? A young boy is seen tumbling out of a tree in a suburban back garden. Staged or not, it’s a fall that would result in a broken elbow, so there’s some digital fakery at play. But it’s an archetypal scene, and that’s Wall’s point: young boys are always falling out of trees, and that makes it a ‘truthful’ image.
Elsewhere we find similarly typical scenes: a rock band on stage, a guy pawning his guitar and two middle-class adolescents play-boxing in an opulent living room. The weirdest image, in Wall’s paradoxical universe, might be the one of a strange headstone outside a Sicilian ossuary. A photograph too odd to be a pure invention, the headstone’s carving depicts the face of Jesus emerging from a drapery held up by two hands. As the Turin Shroud – the famous cloth that is supposed to bear the direct impression of Christ’s face – is sometimes alleged to be, photography is the imprint of light on a surface. But beyond that, Wall seems to suggest, an image is no more truthful than the meaning we give it.