Tran Duc Van and Mr. Welfare

Made by Jacob Slone

My experience with these two pieces.

Created: November 10th, 2014


Jeff Wall’s Tran Duc Van depicts a presumably homeless man standing underneath a tree while a woman walks away from him. The image is created by a transparent over a lightbox, which almost perfectly recreates the light of the captured scene instead of relying on the light in the gallery space, which was significantly dimmer. This likely comes from the importance that light plays in the piece in how it controls where you look and the significance of that. I found it extremely difficult to look at the man for any length of time. This is primarily because he is in the darkest portion of the image, and it is so much brighter in the area around him that my eyes were always pulled away from him. In fact, my eyes were always drawn towards the window in the upper right corner of the image, the brightest location and the furthest away from the man. This very clearly seems to be a commentary on how much we try to ignore the homeless when we encounter them, and the woman is supposed to represent us which is likely why we can’t see her face. I’ll admit that I’m guilty of it; when I see people asking for money or holding cups while I’m walking to campus I do all I can to not make eye contact with them. I’ve even gone so far as leaving my wallet at home so that I don’t feel as guilty for not giving them money. Yet in this context I wanted to look at him, I wanted to try to relate to him but the composition made it almost impossible. I think this says something fascinating about us, and how we’re so eager to help in theory but completely avoid the situation in practice.

Peter Saul’s Mr. Welfare, on the other hand, forces you to look everywhere and at everything. The bold yet sickly colors along with broken perspectives create a feeling of unease, and the comical yet disturbing characters seem to blatantly be calling capitalism bad joke. The garish red of Mr. Welfare’s overalls captures the eye immediately, where it then follows his genitals. This seems extremely intentional, as from there the eyes continue up the road past the middle class homes and onto the “high cost.” The lower and darker portion, however, which the eye eventually lands on is the opposite end of that road, poverty. There are numerous disembodied heads with labels licking various things, and it seemed that each was saying something but I didn’t get all of them. For instance, one labeled “Very Poor” was licking a lightbulb above profit. This seemed representative of capitalism forcing the poor to become captivated with the idea of having money, of having what they do not. The low, middle, and high class are all licking some portion of Mr. Welfare’s penis, labeled with “Revolutionary Warfare is Legal”, but I couldn’t figure out what that was supposed to mean. The two halves of the bridge, labeled “Profit” and “Loss” also seemed to represent weights on a balance, which seems to reinforce the idea of the profit of the middle and upper class being built on the poverty of the lower class. Most of the perspective seems off or broken, and even Mr. Welfare is just floating in the air. This seems constructed to enhance the feeling of brokenness in the image.

Both of these works are addressing similar subject matter, but I enjoyed how Tran Duc Van was more of an introspective experience than the very expository Mr. Welfare. While Mr. Welfare is definitely evocative and aesthetically interesting, I don’t feel like I’m discovering anything while I look at it, it feels more like listening to someone rant.

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My experience with these two pieces.