Jeffrey "Jeff" Wall, OC, RSA is a Canadian artist best known for his large-scale back-lit Cibachrome photographs and art history writing. Wall has been a key figure in Vancouver's art scene since the early-1970s. Early in his career, he helped define the Vancouver School and he has published essays on the work of his colleagues and fellow Vancouverites Rodney Graham
, Ken Lum
, and Ian Wallace
. His photographic tableaux often take Vancouver's mixture of natural beauty, urban decay, and postmodern and industrial featurelessness as their backdrop.
Wall received his MA from the University of British Columbia in 1970, with a thesis titled, Berlin Dada and the Notion of Context. That same year, Wall stopped making art. With his wife, Jeannette, a native of England whom he had met as a student in Vancouver, and their two young sons, he moved to London to do postgraduate work at the Courtauld Institute from 1970-73, where he studied with Manet expert T.J. Clark. Wall was an assistant professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (1974-75), associate professor at Simon Fraser University (1976-87), taught for many years at the University of British Columbia and lectured at European Graduate School. He has published essays on Dan Graham, Rodney Graham, Roy Arden, Ken Lum, Stephan Balkenhol, On Kawara, and other contemporary artists.
In 2002, Wall was awarded the Hasselblad Award. In 2006, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada
. Jeff Wall was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in December 2007. In March 2008, Wall was awarded the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement, British Columbia's annual award for the visual arts.
Jeff Wall was born in Vancouver in 1946. Attentive to the accidental encounters that can inspire an image, he recreates flashes of inspiration obtained from sources as varied as personal recollections to something noticed on the street, to daydreams, and encounters with paintings or photographs. With an idea in mind, Wall goes to exacting lengths to produce the picture, which may include constructing a scene from scratch, factoring in the position of the sun over several weeks, and improvisational rehearsals with performers. Wall’s pictures include both fantastical scenes—a picnic with vampires, dead troops conversing, a grave flooded by the ocean—and vernacular images of people on the margins of society or in moments of exchange and quiet contemplation.
Orchestrating his compositions with the creative liberties that a painter would take, the curious magic and discipline of Wall’s work is that it all takes place in a state of photographic realism where every action, object, and condition is simultaneously artificial and entirely natural. Often printed on the grand scale of a history painting - exhibited either as backlit lightboxes akin to advertising displays or as crisp inkjet and silver gelatin prints - Wall’s works reveal their poetic potential through portraying empathetic characters, picturing impossible vantage points, and capturing elusive moments.
Wall has said, "The only way to continue in the spirit of the avant-garde is to experiment with your relation to tradition"
(Artnews, Nov. 1995, p.222). In 1977, during a visit to the Prado in Madrid, he was moved by the paintings of Velázquez and Goya. He felt that, due to what he saw as the dominance of photography and film, it was no longer possible for modern artists to paint like the great masters. Seeking a new method to represent everyday life pictorially, Wall found a suitable medium in advertising hoarding lightboxes, and made his first backlit transparencies in 1978. Early works, such as The Thinker (1986) based on Rodin's sculpture of that name, referred directly to great works in the history of art. Recently, he has more actively explored the literary and filmic aspects of his art. The majority of his pieces are set in Vancouver and contain references to art, the media, and socio-economic problems.