Canadian astronaut

Jeff Wall's hyperreal photos at SFMOMA launch the mundane into the stratosphere

REVIEW Kids are bored. They're hanging on the sidewalk outside a nightclub, splashed in sick amber light. Many of the usual suspects are here: the skinny postgoth chick in golden heels, the stereotypical Russian-looking muffin top trapped on a crappy date, the about-to-ralph dude in an untucked striped Oxford, some rasta hoppers, a hipster gal in rave flats and a trucker cap. Most are smoking and none look happy, except maybe the tranny-licious blond who's about to skate the cover, glimpsed in the doorway flirting with the bouncers. She looks as fake as the rest of the scene.

I mean, what club is this? Yes, the breakdown of rigid nightlife subcultures has accelerated in recent years (no one can be only one thing in the Internet age) but these kids — part Marina, part Mission, part Oakland, part imaginary — would never traffic the same joint, let alone one that looks like a cheap storefront with Styrofoam gargoyles over the door, a tacky wrought-iron gate, and, oh yeah, a hilariously retro surveillance camera trained on them. Gross. Or paradise?

When I heard the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is displaying Vancouver-born photographer Jeff Wall's gigantic In Front of a Nightclub (2006) as part of its retrospective of the artist's three-decade career, my little ivory feet got tingly. Not just because I live in Clubland, but also because I trust Wall to get it right. Most club photographers have reeled back from Nan Goldin's tear-jerking parties of grief in the '80s to grease those spinning Warhol wheels again, dazzled by outsize personalities, druggy outfits, and pantomimed omnisexuality. But Wall's a major artist with his own agenda, which looks so hard at the mundane, the normal, and the pointless that it often shoots right through into revelation. The humdrum apocalypse of a bad night out in a parallel universe fits perfectly. The picture is sensational.

This is a nice time for a Wall retrospective, mostly because his monumental intelligence — which ranges far beyond nightlife — provides a nifty alternative to both the tawdry macho "heroism" of the Matthew Barney–Damien Hirst–Jeff Koons art world establishment bonanzas and the current indie scene's seemingly endless slide into infantilism and abnegation. No quilts made of dryer lint, deliberately embarrassing emotional outbursts, or snaps of naked skater chums for Wall. No scaling atria with Björk in tow either.

That doesn't mean Wall lacks hipster cred: his first exhibited picture, 1978's The Destroyed Room, provided the cover art and title for Sonic Youth's 2007 collection of B-sides. But the Édouard Manet–like social commentary of Wall's gorgeously staged scenes — a Cops-worthy outdoor argument in a run-down tract-home neighborhood, day laborers posed on a "cash corner" under flabbergasting winter skies, open-sore industrial operations in the pristine Canadian wilderness, an asshole mocking an Asian man while his girlfriend squints in the sun — and an eye that combines William Eggleston's rough-and-tumble photographic haphazardness with the natty mannerism of '70s photorealist painting seem revelatory, if a tad safe, in these times of numbed, numbing self-projection.

Trained in art history and drenched in way too much theory, the 60-year-old Wall works on a grand scale. His typical Cibachrome prints are several feet across, mounted on light boxes — an idea he ripped off from bus shelter advertising — and full of compositional winks at old masters and references to dense sociological notions. Much of this work heretically clings to the old-fangled notion of transcendence, that even the most mundane things, if examined closely enough, can send the metaphorical mind — the soul — soaring into space.

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