Cinematic Photography, Theatricality, Spectacle: The Art of Jeff Wall

Sharla Sava
Communication, Simon Fraser University
February, 2006
 

Abstract

This dissertation examines developments in the field of art photography through a close examination of the work of Vancouver-based artist, Jeff Wall. It is concerned in particular with the development of 'cinematic photography', a practice which draws together the conventions of theatre and image in the creation of a pictorial tableau. This practice attests to the inherent tensions of the post-68 era with regard to the legacy of modernism, the onset of post-modernism and the fading viability of the avant-garde imagination.
The critical reception of Jeff Wall's art rightly emphasizes the heritage of sixties vanguardism rather than the established tradition of modernist art photography. This dissertation demonstrates the way in which Wall's 'post-medium' return to pictorialism is also intended to work against sixties experimentalism, and, in particular, against the iconoclasm of Conceptual Art. It reviews the means by which the artist's position builds from cultural Marxism, the historical avant-garde, and from that trajectory of critical postmodernism which championed theatricality.
Central to this study is the claim that older practices of representation, such as theatre and drama, play a crucial role in shaping the art photography of the post-68 era, and Jeff Wall's work in particular. While dominant interpretations of Jeff Wall's art have explained the rejection of sixties experimentalism as a strategic return to the 'painting of modern life', I argue that the discourse of theatricality which dates from the sixties and seventies, both pro and con, is a more productive means by which to understand the widespread return to narrative pictorialism which has occurred in contemporary art.
Following ideas developed by Michael Fried, T.J. Clark and others, this dissertation connects the emergent discourse of theatricality as it occurs in the art world with social theories which address the increasingly spectacular forces of consumer society, finally returning to the formative role played by Enlightenment debates about the value of modernity as a culture of representation. Aesthetic experience is offered to the contemporary spectator as the site of an ongoing contest between the critical force of negation and the formidable appearance of progress.



Wall, Jeff, 1946 – Criticism and interpretation; Photography, artistic; Modernism (art); Vancouver – British Columbia; Visual culture
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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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