Jeff Wall photoexhibit: Living large

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Entering Jeff Wall's retrospective exhibit on the fourth floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art can be a bit disorienting. His large (some humongous) backlit transparencies there give the notion of being at a bus stop, looking at ads. But that's just the first impression, caused by the similarity in the media.

(Wall actually started using the technique of silver dye bleach transparencies in a light box three decades ago, long before its commercial application became widespread.)

The second temporary disconnect is that you're looking at photographs, but they appear as paintings. Or, is it paintings that look like photographs? Whatever it is, it's a blessedly far cry from the faux-photographic technique of the late, unlamented Socialist Realism school.

Thirdly, Wall's works are not snapshots of people and spaces, although they may appear as such to the casual viewer. The Canadian artist uses a unique approach, recreating in a controlled environment (in a studio usually) what catches his eyes on the street or an idea that may occur to him.

“In front of a nightclub,” for example, a 7 1/2 by 10-foot large-scale work, shows people lined up outside a nightclub, waiting to be left in.

It looks like a photograph, but in fact, Wall staged the scene, having seen something similar.

“Restoration” is enormous, 47 by18 feet, showing conservators working on the restoration of a panoramic painting in Lucerne, Switzerland.

Although Wall used a 360-degree panoramic camera, he chose to capture only half the panorama, digitally collaging overlapping exposures.

“The exclusion of the space behind the camera is measured in a way that no other picture I've made is so closely measured,” Wall commented when the picture was exhibited at Tate Modern. “There's a woman looking into the space … into part of the picture youcan't see, to make a little accent to that notion that there's a space outside.”

One of his most eyecatching and lyrical works is “A Sudden Gust of Wind,” a scene at a Vancouver farm that evokes the image and feeling of Japanese artist Hokusai's 19th-century woodblock prints. The characters in the picture are played by amateur actors (who look very “real”). Wall took more than a year, taking over 100 photographs to create “Sudden Gust.”

Attention in the large show is inevitably drawn to Wall's most dramatic work, “Dead Troops Talk,” described as a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, 1986. Mortally wounded, in fact dead, soldiers appear alive in the picture — half real, half ghosts — speaking to each other.

The show, which opened over the weekend, will be at SF MoMA through Jan. 27.

IF YOU GO

Jeff Wall

Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco

When: Open daily (except Wednesdays) 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.; Thursdays until 8:45 p.m.; show closes Jan. 27

Tickets: $12.50 general; $8 seniors; $7 students

Contact: (415) 357-4000; www.sfmoma.org  

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