Jeff Wall, White Cube, Mason's Yard, London; Seb Patane, Tate Britain, London

A Jeff Wall show used to be a straightforward event, until he merged his cinematographic skills with a new love of documentary

We used to know where we were with Jeff Wall's photographs. The Canadian artist had studied at the Courtauld, we were told, and his panoramic images were conceived on the same scale and with the same level of detail as the narrative paintings of 19th-century masters like Courbet and Delacroix. He agonised, we believed, over the casting of actors and the composing of a scene in the manner of Martin Scorsese, before taking just as long to produce the finished work as it did to make Gangs of New York. Finally we were left to marvel at the sheer endeavour when the pictures were displayed like illuminated airport adverts on the gallery wall.

A few years ago, however, all this changed when it was announced that Wall, 61, had discovered documentary photography. Rather than spending weeks setting up his photos, he found that he could shoot ready made scenes and present them as if they were as carefully conceived as his works in cinematography. As a result, it's not so easy to understand Jeff Wall any more. When we look at the three new illuminated photographs on show at White Cube, for example, are we looking at his carefully stage-managed images or his blown-up snapshots? And what about the black-and-white photographs downstairs, the ones he calls "near documentary"? Are there any clues to help us decipher what is real and what is not?

There's something obviously repellent about Dressing Poultry, the huge photograph of women plucking chickens which dominates the main gallery, and yet it's hard to take your eyes off it. We are gripped by the laughing face of a worker and compelled to consider the contrast between her expression and her action as she pulls the entrails out of a chicken carcass. A fellow worker chuckles with her, but what are they laughing at? They are standing in a warehouse packed full of poultry feathers, work tables and miscellaneous objects like bicycles and coke crates. On the floor there are pools of coagulating blood.

In terms of subject matter the photograph confirms the artist's interest in the French realist tradition of depicting low-paid workers toiling at their jobs. And like Manet or Courbet, Wall takes trouble with the lighting and the composition to make a picture in which the beauty and humour is in contrast to the unsettling subject matter. But how staged is the scene? Wall has said these pictures are documentary images but it's hard to trust someone who has made their career revelling in layers of artifice. This chicken-plucking place may exist, but there are clues that suggest that the artist hasn't just stumbled in; how else can you explain a cardboard box in the foreground conveniently stamped with the word "Grimm's"?

The two other backlit photographs are less tricky to decipher. Hotels, Carrall St, Vancouver, shows a row of tall Victorian buildings in the process of renovation. This scene, together with Church, Carolina St, Vancouver, which shows a clapboard building signposted as a Slavic Pentecostal church, seem to be genuine observations of a city in the process of change rather than stage-managed events. The compositions are as considered as Hopper's and the works are as satisfying as aesthetic objects as they are as social comment.

Six large black-and-white photographs are displayed in the second room and again we must question their appearance as documentary images. For example, were the boys behind the barricade in War Game really holding up plastic guns as if practising for some future war, or has Wall conscripted actors and gone out on location? It's hard to tell. Where there are no humans as in Cold Storage, things seem more straightforward. Here a concrete bunker contains nothing but an icy ceiling and a frozen patch on the floor. We don't know what has happened here, but the scene is chilling in every way.

If Wall's new pictures were really documentary photographs, they would surely lack the gravitas of his older pieces. But the doubts we have about whether we can trust him laces the experience of looking at his work with a whole new thrill.

In stark contrast to the high gloss of Jeff Wall's prints is Seb Patane's installation, This Song Kills Fascists, on show in the Art Now space at Tate Britain. This thirtysomething is a graduate of Goldsmith's MA course and one of the new breed of artists whose work appears wilfully badly mad, as if in protest against the rise of art as luxury goods. The installation features a series of framed drawings scribbled in ballpoint, some screenprints of protest marchers, and an excruciating soundtrack of the title song which makes your head hurt. His project, apparently, is to investigate how the subculture of art and music became detached from political action. It's a worthy cause, but the installation is so incoherent that it ends up saying nothing. Do take time to watch the amusing video interview though: Patane, rather loftily, feels that the focusing on the artist rather than the work is suspect and therefore opted to have a hypnotist appear on camera to read out his answers for him.

Jeff Wall, to 19 January (020 7930 5373); Seb Patane, to 13 January (020 7887 8734)

Further reading 'Jeff Wall: Modern Artists Series' by Craig Burnett (Tate Publishing)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport