Jeff Wall’s Triptych Is One of the Best Things the Artist Has Ever Done

THE DAILY PIC: The photographer's triptych updates the Renaissance altarpiece.


(Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery)

THE DAILY PIC (#1454): When I came across this recent piece by Jeff Wall at Marian Goodman gallery in New York, it struck me as one of the best things he’s ever done. Maybe that’s because at this time of year my mind tends to be filled with Christian imagery, and Wall’s work suddenly seemed to be a good fit.

His huge triptych instantly evoked the multi-panel altarpieces of the European Renaissance. Its complex rug, in fact on the floor of a cheap hotel in Los Angeles, brought to mind the Eastern textiles that were shown covering the seat of an enthroned Virgin Mary or hovering behind her as a Cloth of Honor – and that were actually used on Renaissance altar tables. The striking perspectival lines in Wall’s photo evoke the construction of Old Master space, even if they don’t match actual perspective systems that would have been used in paintings. And the two figures in Wall’s side panels have powerful echoes of the saints that attend on the central holy characters in Renaissance pictures.

Which of course just points up the fact that there is no such character in the center of Wall’s picture; there’s just an ascent into emptiness. A devout Christian might see Wall’s staircase as signifying access to a world above and beyond, but I can’t read it that way. For all its sacred echoes, this triptych seems to capture a world where there is only the here and now, without any chance of transcendence. The Cloth of Honor has become a cheap and filthy floor covering. Wall’s two attendant “saints” remind me more of Roman soldiers at the Crucifixion, utterly cut off from the sacred, than of Christian supporters of triumphant deity.

I’m not saying I’d rather live in a world of belief, but the contrast between Wall and, say, Bellini makes clear that religion once had its rewards.

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