Tour de Force: James Welling's Artistic Versatility

By Conor Risch

© James Welling
"0869, 2009," from "Glass House." James Welling created this series of photographs of The Philip Johnson Glass House, a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, by holding colored filters in front of the lens of his digital camera. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more of Welling's work.

Regardless of their chosen medium, artists want to be known for something. One of the measures of success is that audiences recognize when they are looking at, listening to or reading the work of a particular artist, because that artist has staked out a creative territory of their own. The rub of recognition, however, is that once an artist has established a territory, then labels and expectations follow. Recognition becomes limiting: An artist who wants to chart a new, unfamiliar course can have problems convincing collectors, fans, critics—the market—to follow along, to continue exploring with them.

Last year James Welling, in an exhibition at David Zwirner gallery in New York City, showed photographs from three series: “Fluid Dynamics,” “Frolic Architecture” and “Wyeth.” The “Fluid Dynamics” prints are abstract, bursting with organic, shifting forms in odd shades of color, which Welling made by creating photograms of water, then scanning them and manipulating the color in Photoshop. The mimetic “Wyeth” photographs reframe scenes painted by the late Andrew Wyeth, and also include still-life and interior images Welling made at the Olson House, where Wyeth kept a studio. “Frolic Architecture,” a series of silvery, monochromatic photograms, have a different, splashed-then-smeared fluidity from the “Fluid Dynamics” images. Welling created these by painting with purple acrylic on clear Mylar, then contact printing onto gelatin-silver paper. Then he scanned the contact prints and output them as enlarged inkjet prints.

A casual viewer would have been forgiven for thinking there were at least two, if not three artists exhibiting in the show, which the gallery titled “Overflow.” Those who knew Welling’s work, however, would not have been surprised. Throughout his 35-year career, Welling has explored photography and its possibilities without settling on a signature style. Though bodies of Welling’s work have become well known, what he is arguably known for is his versatility.

“[Welling] embraces this notion of an open field where photography is not stuck in this little box, but comingles itself with other media,” says Dr. James Crump, the photography curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum, which is hosting a retrospective exhibition of Welling’s work that opened in February and continues through May 5, 2013. “He is an incredible role model for a new generation of artists who have the wherewithal … to play with that open field, to experiment, to break free of any kind of hackneyed or staid definition of what a photograph is supposed to be.”

Welling studied painting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh from 1969 to ’71, where he became interested in Minimalism and Conceptual art. In 1971 he transferred to CalArts (aka the California Institute of Art) where he studied Conceptual art with John Baldessari, primarily producing video work. He received his MFA in 1974.

Though Welling had made photographs and “had always been interested in cameras,” it wasn’t until 1976 that he began to take photography seriously. The subjective photography of the 1970s, which Welling associates with Minor White, was “mired in self-exploration,” and held little appeal for him. “I could never see myself as a photographer in the early ’70s,” he recalls. At CalArts, Welling says, “photography was a tool but not a medium.”

His interests changed, however, after he discovered the work of Paul Strand and the New Topographics photographers. Welling saw Strand’s book The Mexican Portfolio in the library at CalArts and was struck by the “conceptual pairing” of Strand’s photographs of religious statues, portraits and landscapes. He viewed the “New Topographics” exhibition at the Otis College of Art and Design’s gallery in Los Angeles in 1976, where he was particularly interested in Stephen Shore’s 8 x 10 view camera photographs. They reminded him of the work of Edward Hopper, who along with Charles Burchfield and Andrew Wyeth, was an important, early influence during Welling’s teenage years. “By 1976,” Welling recalls, “I knew that I had to buy a 4 x 5 view camera and teach myself the rudiments of photography.”

Welling had put away his interest in Burchfield and Hopper while studying at CalArts. But in looking at the New Topographics photographers and the work of Walker Evans, Welling recognized Hopper and Burchfield’s interest in vernacular architecture, and their understanding of “how the vernacular expresses the spirit of the times.” Evans in particular, Welling says, helped him form the bridge between his early interests in Hopper and Burchfield, and his interest in the photographic medium. Some of his first serious attempts at photographs were “moody, noir Los Angeles” photographs that were “really homages to Hopper and Burchfield as much as Evans,” he explains.

Evans was a subject of study for Welling as he taught himself photography from 1976 to ’78, building a darkroom and “looking at all of the different variations on how to make a photograph, how to make a negative, how to print,” he says. He pored over the Photo Lab Index, a book that contained technical sheets from all of the film manufacturers. And he studied the history of photography, learning what he imagines would have been taught in a traditional photography program. “Doing it myself, there was much more of a sense of discovery,” Welling remembers. He saw the connection between his view camera, the lineage of the camera obscura and the history of Western thinking about picture making that stretched back to “the Renaissance invention of perspective … Discovering that historical continuity [for myself] was exciting,” Welling explains.

A self-described contrarian, Welling says he saw “being a photographer, taking photography seriously, as almost a perverse step away from the art world.” The craft of photography interested him in part because attention to technique “seemed like a position my friends were not taking up.” He perceived a “distance from craft” among his peers, the Pictures Generation artists, and among Conceptual artists like Baldessari, Douglas Huebler and Jan Dibbets. “I’m simplifying, but to me it seemed like they didn’t really want to take responsibility for the camera. And that was something that I became fascinated by.”

Mastering the photographic craft proved challenging initially. “When I first started out [making photographic work] I was at the limit of my knowledge,” Welling says. In what’s considered his first body of work, he juxtaposed photographs of his father’s grandmother’s diary from the 1840s with landscapes made near his family’s Connecticut home; at the time, he was “totally deluded about exposure,” he says. “It’s amazing that you can make any pictures” from the negatives. His concept for the series was to make photographs that “looked like [they] could have been made anytime in the last 150 years,” he says.

Early on, devising different ways to make images “became like a game,” Welling says. He would create a set of parameters for making his work, then execute the work within that set of rules. “I was exploring the subtle tonalities of the photographic medium,” Welling says. “Not exactly unconsciously, but now I can see more of what I was doing then. I was following this weak signal that I could follow.”

In 1980 and 1981, Welling made a series of abstract photographs of crumpled aluminum foil. The challenge was to create “pictures that looked very mysterious but were made very simply with aluminum foil and a clip-on lamp,” he says. In an essay for the catalogue of the retrospective exhibition, Dr. Crump writes that Welling’s photos of aluminum foil “play with the surface of a known material that, when stressed and crumpled and then photographed, is capable of conjuring an image poles apart from the referent object.” They “rely on the beholder to fill in meaning.”

Welling, who in 1979 had moved to New York City, also created a series of abstract photographs of brown velvet drapes, using an 8 x 10 view camera. Both the “Drapes” and “Aluminum Foil” series were exhibited at Metro Pictures in New York City, and were well received critically. Welling went on to create abstract photographs of ink-infused gelatin and black plastic tiles. In 1986 he began “Degrades,” a series of color photograms he created by exposing chromogenic paper to different color filtrations using an enlarger.

In 1987 he began a series of representational black-and-white photographs of railroads, which he continued for 13 years. Other representational series include his “Connecticut Landscape” photographs and images he made in lace factories in Calais, France. Throughout his career Welling has found pleasure in shifting between “working outside for a while [and] then going back into the darkroom to make experiments,” he notes.

After he moved to Los Angeles in 1995 to teach photography at the University of California, Los Angles, Welling began “New Abstractions,” a series of photograms he created using silver-gelatin paper and strips of Bristol board. He scanned the prints to create new 20 x 24-inch negatives, which he then had enlarged. He used that work as the basis for his “Geometric Abstractions” series, which employed the use of color filters that he had originally explored in his “Flowers” series of photograms. He created the abstract color images on black-and-white film, which he then colorized “by putting an array of shaped color filters above the negative in the mixing chamber of the enlarger,” as he notes in the catalogue, and then enlarging the negatives on chromogenic paper.

His interest in architectural photographs inspired his series “Buildings by H. H. Richardson,” which he made from 1988 to ’94, and later his color photographs of Mies van der Rohe’s modernist Farnsworth House and The Philip Johnson Glass House. For the former he utilized filters and made sequential exposures with his Speed Graphic 4 x 5; for the latter he held color filters in front of the lens of his digital camera.

In an interview with The Museum of Modern Art Photography Curator Eva Respini, which is included in his exhibition catalogue, Welling refers to the idea of a “‘knight’s tour,’ a chess fantasy where the knight can occupy every position on the chessboard.” Hollis Frampton, a photographer and avant-garde filmmaker who also wrote about photography for Artforum, and who was a significant influence for Welling, wrote about this idea in relation to filmmaking. “For Frampton, his knight’s tour would be a tour of all possible films from the beginning of the medium till now,” Welling explains. “The idea of a creative tour around photography is very compelling to me.”

From Frampton, Welling took “the idea that you can make a body of work that would be about difference rather than repeating the same kind of name-brand image,” he tells PDN. “It’s not such a good strategy as an artist because unfortunately people want to know you for one thing, and it’s difficult at times to keep the public focused on what you’re doing,” Welling admits. “Being interested in things that were not necessarily photographic early on when I was a student has helped me focus on different processes and material practices in photography. That said, there is a lot of consistency in what I do. I see a kind of through line with both materials and with content and ways of looking.”

The through line for Welling is the “tension between visual representation, what our eyes do, and what the materials you are using propose. It’s a tension between seeing and making, and how the difference between the act of making changes what you’re seeing.”

“If you look at all the various series of works, they allow for all these different entry points, they allow for engagement,” Dr. Crump says. “He’s allowing for the viewer to finish the picture, to come with the subjectivity or the experience and fill in the gaps. To me, that’s the beauty of a lot of the work.”

From 1977 to 2005 Welling made a body of work he calls “Light Sources”: monochromatic images, many of them “light effects” created by the interplay of sunlight or electric light and organic and manmade structures, which range from representational to abstract. Some of the “Light Sources” pictures, Welling notes, “look like camera or darkroom experiments with superimposed negatives … some of them look a lot like the photograms.” That work, Welling says, “is like a microcosm of what I’ve done, working between abstraction and representational pictures.”

Dr. Crump points out that Welling’s career dovetails with “all these changes in how photography has been accepted or rejected in contemporary art … There’s been a huge change in how it’s been accepted and appreciated, the collector market, how dealers in contemporary art work with photography,” and through it Welling has referred to himself not as an “artist” but as a “photographer.”

Welling “is showing that there is this elasticity [in photography], there [are] these opportunities to redefine and explore and to create anew … there are these relationships that exist between [photography] and other media, painting and sculpture, and performance and Conceptual art,” Dr. Crump adds.

In some ways the recent history of the medium in contemporary art has mimicked the typical trajectory of an artist’s career. Photography struggled to be known—and to be recognized—for something, only to be hemmed in by the definitions, labels and expectations that accompanied that recognition. As Welling notes, “Unfortunately people want to know you for one thing.” Welling has spent his career pushing at the edges of the public’s understanding and expectations of the medium. As Dr. Crump explains, “It’s artists like Welling and a generation inspired by him that will overcome [photography’s] remaining obstacles.”

Related Article:

James Welling Photo Gallery 

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