Saturday, December 20, 2014

Week Five: Postmodernism continued (November 20)

I want to talk about Jeff Wall's piece Picture for Her. I've come across Wall's work before when I took an Intro to Photography and Video class, but I didn't respond to it. I knew it was referencing Manet's painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, but I hadn't realized it was about the gaze.
When I first was introduced to this image, I was prejudiced against the validity of photography as a medium for art, mostly because I hadn't been exposed to art photography before. I'm also a devout believer in painting and saw photography as a rival medium, one that I wanted to fight against. This was mainly why I took that class; to understand the enemy. My initial reaction was that the image was too opaque for me to engage with. Partly due to seeing it in a class room on a large, poorly lit video screen, but also because it is very confusing; what is the artist or the model looking at? What is going on here? What is this space we are looking into? We learned that Wall used Manet's painting as a historical reference to the picture, but aside from the mirror in the image, I didn't get the reference or see why that was important. Was it just appropriating another artist's idea? There were too many questions for me to understand what was going on, so I tuned it out.
A few years passed during which I took ART 151 and a painting course. I learned more about Manet's intent with using the gaze in his work as confrontation. He wanted to question the nature of looking at a painting and how the Salon had created a strict tradition about what should be seen in a painting and how it consumed by the bourgeois viewer. Manet wanted to break away from paintings of seductive, submissive, and demure female nudes that would titillate the viewer. He wanted to turn the tables; have the model look out at you and make you, the viewer, self-conscious. Wall revisits this idea adding current Feminist ideology and how the viewer engages with art.
The traditional idea of woman as subject in art was being questioned and attacked, not only in terms of image of woman, but also how it functioned in the institution of the museum gallery. The idea of the male gaze was questioned; women are constantly under the visual scrutiny of men in a patriarchal society. Women no longer wanted to be objects to be consumed by the eyes of men. The idea of the gaze was reflected in the art of the past and museums were criticized for propagating this view by not having many women artists included in their modern collections. With these debates about equality for women in the arts happening, Wall presents us with Picture for Women.
The model in Wall's image is not an object for our eyes to consume. She stands to the left of centre, looking expectantly, almost bored. She's waiting for the artist to snap the shot. She is seemingly looking out at the viewer, but her line of sight is slightly above our right shoulder. She is clothed in what I would assume to be what the average woman would wear during that time. She is pretty but there is nothing suggestive about her. She's not coming onto you. She is standing there, waiting. Since she is not making direct eye contact, we wonder with whom she is engaged? She is looking past us.
What is slightly disturbing about her is we are left wondering what she is looking at. We figure she must be making eye contact with the artist who is to the right of the camera. This is where the confusion starts because then we realize that the background in the image is actually a mirror; it is reflecting back the whole scene.  To make matters more complicated, we realize that our first perception of where the model is located in the image is wrong. If our first impression were true, we'd see the back of her body and not the front. The whole image is the mirror; it is all being reflected back out at us. We are reminded that we are not looking into a two dimensional window but at a flat surface; the plane.
I think this image fascinates me most because it plays on that idea of image as plane that the Modernists were dealing with. I love how Wall has brought that into the context of photography; taking this image beyond representation. It's difficult to grasp the notion that what we are looking at is a flat surface with colour and shapes. These colours and shapes create an illusion of space and I think it's amazing that Wall broke out to the fourth wall using photography. And yes, I have a better appreciation for photography now.
Picture for Women, Jeff Wall

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