Known for an awkward, aggressively regular aesthetic combined with a patient and cinematic craftsmanship, Jeff Wall’s photographs depict both public and domestic scenarios from rural, suburban, and industrial areas. In the majority of them, absolutely nothing special is going on at all. Day workers gather by a lumberyard, people fold laundry in borrowed flats, or stand alone in random hallways, skycranes punctuate the low sky above a grimy harbor on an overcast day, a small bedroom has been trashed to pieces and left in chaos. That last scenario appeared as the album cover for a Sonic Youth compilation of, fittingly enough, b-sides.
Remarkable for their unremarkability in subject, Wall’s style is often called cinematic, partly because he favors lightboxes rather than flat framed prints, and the luminosity and scale combine to a rather theatrical effect. But if anything, his is a very specific kind of conceptual cinematic vision, almost New Wave with its flattening take on realism, the casting of amateur actors, and the focus on small gestures and mundane activities. For reasons having to do with examining the texture of daily life in great detail, Wall is most interested in what is collectively taken for granted.
Three significant works by Wall (one of which has never been exhibited before) are on display at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. The collection narrows the artist’s focus to the depiction of displaced people inhabiting city alleys, side streets, and underpasses. The curatorial commentary of contextualizing these works within the institution’s mission of engagement on social issues recasts their subjects with a more political trajectory. Applying the usual breezy claustrophobia of domestic, low-risk malaise to a topical and pressing societal issue, how is it, the works seem to ask, that grave social ills like rampant homelessness in the face of both urban blight and rapid gentrification came to be considered so normal that we regularly overlook this reality with the same disregard as we fold our laundry?
The exhibit is on view now at the Perez Art Museum Miami through January 17, 2016 in Miami.