Wall experimented with conceptual art while an undergraduate student at UBC. Wall then made no art until 1977, when he produced his first backlit phototransparencies. Many of these pictures are staged and refer to the history of art and philosophical problems of representation. The photographs’ compositions often allude to historical artists like Diego Velázquez, Hokusai, and Édouard Manet, or to writers such as Franz Kafka, Yukio Mishima, and Ralph Ellison.
Mimic (1982) typifies Wall’s cinematographic style. A 198 × 226 cm colour transparency, it shows a white couple and an Asian man walking towards the camera. The sidewalk, flanked by parked cars and residential and light-industrial buildings, suggests a North American industrial suburb. The woman is wearing red shorts and a white top displaying her midriff; her bearded, unkempt boyfriend wears a denim vest. The Asian man is casual but well-dressed in comparison, in a collared shirt and slacks. As the couple overtake the man, the boyfriend makes an ambiguous but apparently obscene and racist gesture, holding his upraised middle finger close to the corner of his eye, “slanting” his eye in mockery of the Asian man’s eyes. The picture resembles a candid shot that captures the moment and its implicit social tensions, but is actually a recreation of an exchange witnessed by the artist.
Wall’s work advances an argument for the necessity of pictorial art. Some of Wall’s photographs are complicated productions involving cast, sets, crews and digital postproduction. They have been characterized as one-frame cinematic productions. Susan Sontag ended her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), with a long, laudatory discussion of one of them, Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986) (1992), calling Wall’s Goya-influenced depiction of a made-up event “exemplary in its thoughtfulness and power.”
Wall distinguishes between unstaged “documentary” pictures, like Still Creek, Vancouver, winter 2003, and “cinematographic” pictures, produced using a combination of actors, sets, and special effects, such as Overpass, 2001. His signature works are large transparencies mounted on light boxes; he says he conceived this format when he saw back-lit advertisements at bus stops during a trip between Spain and London. Since the mid-1990s, Wall has also made large scale black and white photographs, some of which were exhibited at Kassel’s Documenta X, as well as smaller colour prints.