During a recent trip to the Jeff Wall retrospective, The Crooked Path, at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels I found myself wondering why there is often a curatorial imperative to define exactly what this work is. At Bozar that imperative fell on Wall himself, who selected twenty-five works and myriad 'masterpieces from the History of art' to help contextualise his photographic process. As such the exhibition seemed less about Wall’s engagement with other genres of art (from portraiture to Conceptualism) and more a generalised survey you might find in the permanent collection of any modern art museum.
Yet what makes Wall’s photographs so engaging is their indefinability; they can act as a painting, sculpture, installation and photograph simultaneously. The flexibility of a Wall photograph is readily apparent in one work, which was notably absent from the exhibition. At first glance Night (2001) seems almost entirely black. Looking closely one can make out a pool of water, bushes, an overpass and finally a huddled figure. The work is vaguely documentary, vaguely painterly; yet the subtle variation of black and grey and the simplicity of the subject matter purposely shroud associations to alternative art historical sources. In the darkness the viewer is left to discern independently what defines a photograph.