Between thought and expression, lies a lifetime—John Pearson considers “James Welling: Monograph”

James Welling,  Cascade (B81), 1980, Gelatin silver contact print,  4 5/8" x 3 3/4"

James Welling,
Cascade (B81), 1980,
Gelatin silver contact print,
4 5/8″ x 3 3/4″

Between thought and expression, lies a lifetime.

– Lou Reed (1)

Monograph is a survey exhibition of the photographer James Welling’s work from the late 1970s to the present.  My interest here is to consider the artist’s photographs as well as the installation of the exhibition at the Hammer Museum through photographic associations, excerpts of published interviews with the artist, and various, sometimes contradictory, ideas about photography.  Writing about photographs I find myself preoccupied by the world – what the artist makes of it with the photograph, how the photograph informs that relationship.  And this connection built from the index, record, trace that is a photograph is where I find myself negotiating meaning.

The photograph, inherently mechanical, inherently systematic, is unique in its alignment with a single unruly and impulsive sense: vision.  And vision’s association with one’s attention suggests that looking at a photograph is seeing the photographer’s attention. You look at what was looked at by the artist.  The photograph offers attention, consideration, and discovery of the artist’s surroundings.  It manifests perception and makes a sense of the world.  I’m thinking about a photography rooted in observation.

“No.  I think that, in general–and this includes a lot of what I see in Chelsea even more than what I see from students at Yale–there’s a failure to understand how much richer in surprise and creative possibility the world is for photographers in comparison to their imagination.  This is an understanding that an earlier generation of students, and photographers, accepted as a first principle.  Now ideas are paramount, and the computer and Photoshop are seen as the engines to stage and digitally coax those ideas into a physical form–typically a very large form.  This process is synthetic, and the results, for me, are often emotionally synthetic too.  Sure, things have to change, but photography-as-illustration, even sublime illustration, seems to me an uninteresting direction for the medium to be tracking now, particularly at such a difficult time in the general American culture.”

-Todd Papageorge, from Moyra Davey’s Long Life Cool White (2)

Photography today seems to be completely content-driven.  The meaning and value of the work lies in identifying the subject.  It’s as if the photograph is not even a representation.  It’s not that I don’t care about content, but content is not the only way a photograph has meaning.

– James Welling (3)

The grammatical sense of a photograph, the conventional sense that assigns meaning and defines content, is a tenuous/provisional proposition. There have always been types of photography; genres and categories that are used to identify, differentiate, and assign content and meaning to a photograph. And photographs have always shifted between these categories, resistant to definitive explanation. James Welling’s photographs are often understood as inhabiting many of these different genres of photography without abiding by them. This itinerancy of the photograph fuels a cautiousness and skepticism in the viewer but it also emboldens the viewer and invites interpretation. The typical reading of a photograph identifying the noun, adjective, and verb is not Welling’s intention.

In 2008 I went to a discussion between Mark Wyse and Welling for Photo L.A. at the Santa Monica airport. Welling had a laconic, modest manner of talking about his own photographs, very matter of fact.  The dynamic between Wyse and Welling suggested the scene in the documentary Painters Painting when Andy Warhol is interviewed by the director Emile de Antonio, sitting right next to Warhol is Brigid Berlin and she elaborates on, explains, and supplements Andy’s responses. At Photo L.A. Mark Wyse took on the role of Berlin, elaborating on the brief, truncated responses offered by Welling. It was as if Welling’s explanations resisted bringing form to his intentions.  It wasn’t as though Welling was evasive; but much seemed left out.  Everyone wanted to get to the bottom of this thing and find out what the photographs are all about.

I was trying to make something that wasn’t easily recognizable and which disconnected the verbal from the visual.  The ideas from (Wallace) Stevens and (Stephane) Mallarme that were percolating from 1970 to 1980 finally became the engine that helped me visualise my Aluminum Foil photographs of 1980 to 1981.  I wanted to make photographs that you could not describe, you could not remember, but which were still, nevertheless, very sharp and clear.

-Welling (4)

What is compelling about photography is that you have to work to decipher it.  We were talking earlier about the active state of looking:  the fact that this photograph was taken in the past is a given, like gravity, but viewing and untangling the ambiguity of photographic meaning is what I find compelling about photographs, not the embedded directionality of time.

-Welling (5)

Well, I’m not sure my work is completely earnest.  Like a lot of my peers, I value intelligence over earnestness.  My work might be somewhat different from the “Pictures” generation artists, but I think we all grappled with the need to rethink the expressive possibilities of artmaking.

-Welling (6)

Photography assigns a hierarchy that prioritizes vision. It lends itself to cataloging and explaining in visual terms. If this is seen as its strength, it’s reasonable to define the camera as offering an idealized mechanical view on the world. Vision isolated from the tangle of the other senses and the body. Secure the camera on a tripod or up high on a stucco facade or roll it by dolly along frictionless rails and it produces a visual transcription with an emphasis on a particular legibility. But that legibility – heightened scrutiny, keen focus – also ushers in the shortcomings of the camera. It’s a machine that is subservient to the world of material and light; its role is to represent appearance. Its inability to render anything except what is placed in front of the lens makes it cumbersome, and leaden.

But photography is so specific about what can be rendered.  I think that specificity is something that I have always found exciting.  I’m trying to work with and work around all of those decisions that are built into photography.

-Welling (7)

James Welling, Degradé #17, Series: Degradés 1992, Ektacolor Print, 24" x 20" www.lacma.org

James Welling, Degradé #17,
Series: Degradés
1992, Ektacolor Print,
24″ x 20″
www.lacma.org

One of the first photographs by Welling that I saw was from the Degradés series, hung at LACMA in the late 1990s, and around the same time I found a small book of his photographs titled Light Sources.  The book seemed to be pushing against the cataloging nature of photography, against the resolution that distills the meaning of a photograph.  The Degradés photograph, a color photogram, registered the color darkroom as a creative component of making photographs.  It also foregrounded the tension of a photograph that didn’t operate as a typical representation and it did so with the simplest of means – just light projected from the enlarger head without a negative.  Light Sources built meaning from association, where photographs could start to cohere but then disperse with the appearance of disparate images, only to reconfigure the framework into a new sense.  Judy Fiskin’s Some More Art series and corresponding book were out around the same time.  Some More Art seemed to be about making sense of art and making sense of looking simultaneously.  I responded to the activities of both artists building meaning through associations after having made a photograph, adding a layer that made the images more dynamic and initiated a reflection on the photographic process.  This way of working seemed more active throughout the entirety of the process.  The book form of each of these two projects, Light Sources and Some More Art, registers an accumulation of different ways of considering and handling photography (i.e. the act of selecting a subject matter, pointing the camera and framing, decisions in the darkroom concerning printing and shaping the image, editing into a group – to give sense to – the range of imagery, and applying language to identify the photographs individually or to title the series overall). Both books conduct an inquiry that allows for wandering and intuition that takes form in collaboration with the mechanics of the camera and photographic process, to take advantage of it, but not to aggrandize its mechanical nature.

Welling’s Monograph exhibition at the Hammer addresses the over-determination of the photograph to be read, to be considered language.   In some respects the exhibition functions as an antidote to the conventions of making meaning from a photograph, to a standardized legibility. The different series of photographs recalibrate how we engage with images in an abstract and aesthetic manner.  And although the subject matter of the various photographic series – and all the photographs are in series – shifts among types: portrait, facade, still life, photogram, etc, along with location: studio, outdoors, indoors, rural and urban; there are still unifying elements that offer insight to his work.

With my work the capacity of or uncertainty seems to work against provisional readings of the work, continually and ideally rupturing intention and effect so as to rediscover it in another realm.

-Welling (8)

The photographs are all rectangular or square.  The photographs are all flat, flush to the wall in frames, under glass, and often behind mats.  The photograph is an object with a front side, without tactility, without anything but visual information on a perfectly flat industrial surface – maximum opticality of rendered information. In Monograph there is no questioning of this tradition of presentation.  But what of the range of the subject matter?  The camera consumes the light of everything placed in front of it.  It facilitates excess. But the photographs on exhibit that span 35 years are very particular in subject matter and austere in their groupings.

Bruce Nauman,  Flour Arrangements, 1966, Seven Color Photographs Raussmüller Collection 2013, CRS

Bruce Nauman,
Flour Arrangements, 1966,
Seven Color Photographs
Raussmüller Collection 2013, CRS

Welling’s consistent serial production seems rooted in process, which is key to understanding his work. The slight, modest action is paramount in Welling’s practice: crumpling foil, arranging drapery, breaking up brittle phyllo dough sheets, tossing tiles, tossing mat strips, tossing flowers.  These actions are stagings but are not wholly theatrical.  It is a performative involvement with the world and a bodily engagement that intervenes with the photographic system.  I would consider them gestures and interactions.  It brings to mind Bruce Nauman’s Flour Arrangements (1966) and various photographic and drawing projects by Barry Le Va in the late ’60s.

poppy seeds P1090059

Barry Le Va, 1966 – 1988 / exhibition organized by Elaine A. King; with an essay by Klaus Kertess
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1988
Catalog published in conjunction with the exhibition Barry Le Va; 1966 – 1988
Catalog photographed by John Pearson

bearings P1090022

Barry Le Va, 1966 – 1988 / exhibition organized by Elaine A. King; with an essay by Klaus Kertess
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1988
Catalog published in conjunction with the exhibition Barry Le Va; 1966 – 1988
Catalog photographed by John Pearson

I really wanted to make pictures that were almost invisible, which were very tactile, and which were hard to even remember, as they all kind of look the same, though there are significant differences in each.  With the Drapery pictures which came out of the Aluminum Foil pictures, there was this idea of folds.  As I look back now I see it as a continuing conscious thinking about the idea of tactility, issues of what I think of as sculpture, or traditional spatial relationships.

(9) James Welling

Nauman’s Flour Arrangements photographs mark moments in the process of arranging the flour on the ground.  To see these moments adjacent to each other as photographs qualifies the representational capacity of each.  The photographs attest to flux, ephemerality, and the limits of the camera while recording the active looking and attention of the artist during and as part of the process.  The photographs are not comprehensive, not definitive, they generate ambiguity of scale – the floor meeting the wall becomes a horizon line, and they are all in the midst of the process.  As a unit the photographic series of seven images makes the process of moving the flour more significant than any final completed state. Nauman’s handling of the flour manifests intuition and action in possibly infinite configurations without hierarchy.  This is a project that exudes randomness but contests it with the structure of presentation.

James Welling, [Installation View of James Welling Exhibition at Metro Pictures],  1981,  Gelatin silver print,  2 3/4" x 9 1/4" Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo showing original, Metro Pictures installation with 38 photographs.)

James Welling,
[Installation View of James Welling Exhibition at Metro Pictures],
1981,
Gelatin silver print,
2 3/4″ x 9 1/4″
Metropolitan Museum of Art
(Photo showing original, Metro Pictures installation with 38 photographs.)

Welling’s seriality operates in a similar way, by qualifying the singular or iconic, by acknowledging an equivalence, alluding to the possibility of endless permutations, and by insisting on a cumulative effect of the series as a whole. One example of this is his Aluminum Foil series, which was initially exhibited at Metro Pictures as 38 framed prints gridded in two rows, as shown in Welling’s own documentation of the exhibit (above). For Monograph, curator James Crump (see http://jamescrump.net), has installed selected examples from Welling’s Aluminum Foil series in a clustered arrangement of only twelve prints; this privileging of one print over another effectively removes the dynamic of abundance and excess that we associate with them as uninflected individuals in a defined (and complete) series.

Although many subsequent series’ have this process-oriented origin, Welling breaks from the photographic conventions of presentation seen in the Le Va and Nauman pieces. Welling’s intention seems to be to disperse images, to untether them from the initial context of their making, giving them a greater independence. The process-oriented use of materials is superseded by the presentation, with the resulting photographs reading more as variations on a motif, emphasizing the end result over the means.  What is a possibility, a study, a moment for Nauman or Le Va becomes iconic, unique, and often a much larger photograph for Welling.  And the further selective editing down of each series, as with the Aluminum Foil series in the Hammer exhibition, directs us away from a process-oriented methodology.  Consider if Nauman selected only one photograph for Flour Arrangements and printed it considerably larger.  In such a case permutation would be overshadowed by connoisseurship and distillation.  We would depart from the mundane to be presented with the lyrical, iconic image.

In Monograph, we see a percolating repetition that’s most evident in the curation of the different photogram projects. Various iterations of certain images occur sometimes multiple times within a single series or in a completely different body of work.  For example, there is an 8″ x 10″ black and white photogram created with mat board scraps that is presented in a display vitrine; the same image is converted into a black and white negative and printed large scale installed on the wall (New Abstractions); and again this negative is inverted and printed as an even larger color print using the colored filter technique seen in the Flowers series (Geometric Abstractions).  In the room of flower photographs there are a series of 16″ x 20″ prints showing variations of color and crop all using the same negative alongside the final, scaled up and framed versions. These stages and variations are a model of printmaking that often stands apart from traditional photography, with the latter’s allegiance to uniqueness and securing indexicality.  A reconsideration – reworking – of images is integral to many of Welling’s series:  flopping negatives (Flowers) and inverting prints from positive to negative (Hands, 1975, initially photograms subsequently contact printed to make positives), and the mat board New Abstractions photograms.  In regards to the Geometric Abstractions and Torsos the initial prints are a manageable size made in the darkroom and then scanned back into the computer to seamlessly scale them up to a larger print.  So what is the original?  This proliferation of versions undermines how we identify original: is it the negative? is it the initial print? is it the color version or black and white? is it the big print or the small? is it simply the artist’s handling of the materials that defines each as original?  Welling challenges this drive to resolve the photograph.  And this subsequently challenges the agency of the gallery and art market to assign value, define uniqueness, and attribute a photograph to a time and place, to actually having an origin.

James Welling Reproductions from the Monograph catalog,  left to right, top row: 30, 1999 (New Abstractions), Gelatin silver print, 34" x 27"; 10, 2012 (Geometric Abstractions), Inkjet print, 51" x 40"; 7, 2012, Inkjet print, 51" x 40";   second row:   21, 2011 (Flowers), Chromogenic print, 46 1/2" x 37 1/4";  21, 2006, Chromogenic print, 46 1/2" x 37 1/4"; 021B, 2011, Chromogenic print

James Welling
Reproductions from the Monograph catalog,
left to right, top row:
30, 1999 (New Abstractions), Gelatin silver print, 34″ x 27″;
10, 2012 (Geometric Abstractions), Inkjet print, 51″ x 40″;
7, 2012, Inkjet print, 51″ x 40″;
second row:
21, 2011 (Flowers), Chromogenic print,
46 1/2″ x 37 1/4″; 21, 2006, Chromogenic print, 46 1/2″ x 37 1/4″;
021B, 2011, Chromogenic print

These challenges realized in Welling’s embrace of photography’s printmaking characteristics leads also to associations with Andy Warhol.  Welling seems to court this reference with his subject matter and titling of the Flowers series.  Both artists engage in a process that combines the industrial and handmade, using the photograph not as an end product but as a tool – fixed into the mesh of the silkscreen for Warhol and as a large format negative for Welling – to generate a series of variations. But the similarities and intention diverge when the work is presented in this exhibition.  We don’t get to see the quirky ingenuity of the Flowers series as a means of generating endless permutations.  Instead, a preciousness is asserted within the selection and exhibition design.  A vitrine emphasizes the tools and technique Welling used rather than the results of the system.

Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. September 29, 2013-January 12, 2014. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer. (From "James Welling: Monograph," by James Crump)

Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. September 29, 2013-January 12, 2014. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer. James Welling: Monograph,” by James Crump)

Harry Shunk and Janos Kender, Andy Warhol, Flowers exhibition, Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Paris., 1965 Roy Lichtenstein Foundation

Harry Shunk and Janos Kender, Andy Warhol, Flowers exhibition, Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Paris., 1965
Roy Lichtenstein Foundation

There is so much that is systematic, methodical, and professionalized about photography that its vitality requires an assertive subjectivity that at least challenges some facets of the medium.  Welling offers an intervention to the typical workflow.  His intervention is an anachronistic (i.e. manual) participation in a photographic process that is increasingly digital.  At the Hammer show are vitrines with the idiosyncratic tools Welling uses to produce his photograms.  These vitrines of slight, mundane objects read as archeological finds: chisel, mortar, bowl.  It seems like a playful send-up of contemporary digital photography that the revelatory objects are rectangular strips of mat board resting in a Kodak 8×10 film box, and colored plastic filters cut into quirky shapes and Scotch taped together.

“…Degradé, which is a cameraless picture, that is simply made in the darkroom under a color enlarger.  Which I began the series in ’86 but began in earnest in 98 – 99 when I had more access to a color processor.  These are pictures where I had a piece of cardboard – Cathy Opie once found my cardboard that I make these with in the darkroom and said, “Do not throw away!”  She said, “Jim this is like priceless, this is your, like this is the camera.”  This little piece of cardboard or foamcore.

-Welling—Parsons lecture series (pt 3/4)(10)

Once Photoshop begins to predominate in Welling’s production, the didactic vitrines, which have served to explain and illustrate process, disappear.  It seems there is no need to display the “how” of Photoshop (which could be represented by a copy of the Adobe software package resting in a vitrine); instead we are left only with the purportedly unorthodox mat board and colored plastic sheets.

They [Merce Cunningham and John Cage] were on campus for a week.  Seeing Cunningham rehearse and dance for a week and talking to Cage, both were life changing for me.  I read a lot of Cage, and I studied modern dance for a year at the University of Pittsburgh.

-Welling (11)

I was the only male dancer in my class, and instantly they had me performing onstage.  After a year I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a dancer.

-Welling (12)

At CalArts, no one was interested in craft.  You’d have someone else print your photos.  And when it finally occurred to me that I could make my own photographs, that I could set up a darkroom and make prints, it was tremendously liberating.

-Welling (13)

Richard Prince, Untitled (sunset), 1981, Ektacolor photograph Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Gerald S. Elliott Collection

Richard Prince, Untitled (sunset), 1981, Ektacolor photograph
Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Gerald S. Elliott Collection

Many artists manipulate images to different ends, employing a variety of means. For example, to create the series which includes Untitled (sunset), Richard Prince routed images through multiple photographic processes to arrive at corrupted and distressed states that reflected their making while creating new meaning.  The redundancy of Prince’s re-photography perverts the process.  Welling operates in a more frictionless digital/analog process that doesn’t erode the quality of the image as it is folded back into the photographic process.  Photographs from the Torsos and Geometric Abstractions series begin as small, completed analog prints made in the darkroom; these are subsequently scanned and reproduced exponentially larger, yet without the loss of resolution and corruption that we associate with Prince’s Untitled series; Welling’s final, scaled-up photograph is identical to the original small print.  Instead of exemplifying process, the aspiration of these larger prints seems to be to emphasize color with a painterly bravado, akin to the darkroom abstractions of Walead Beshty and Wolfgang Tillmans, and to again untether the photograph from its making.

Jeff Wall,  Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush with a Red Army Patrol, near Morqou, Afghanistan, winter 1986  (1992)  silver dye bleach transparency (Cibachrome); aluminum lightbox 90 3/16 x 164 3/16 inches David N. Pincus, Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art

Jeff Wall,
Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush with a Red Army Patrol, near Morqou, Afghanistan, winter 1986
(1992)
silver dye bleach transparency (Cibachrome); aluminum lightbox
90 3/16 x 164 3/16 inches
David N. Pincus, Philadelphia
Museum of Modern Art

Jeff Wall uses the computer to choreograph and assemble grand compositions on the computer; scripting and perfecting images; creating realistic fiction as a writer might. For Wall the computer appears to be a means of refinement. In a walk-through of the Monograph exhibition Welling explained that his assistants had seamlessly composited two of his photographs together (see compositing, on Wikipedia); one a winter landscape from the Philip Johnson project, the other a shot of a building from the Wyeth project; this new image was attributed by the artist to working as a painter does, building composition.  In the Maison de Verre series Welling altered the hue and saturation of the compositions using Photshop as well. Welling’s application of digital post-processing suggest a different view of technology than that held by Wall.  For Welling it is a way to leverage a further obfuscation of the photograph from the source rather than a means of attaining an ideal.

When I arranged the drapery and photographed it, I was documenting a private performance.  But you can extend that idea and say that’s the case for all photographs.  A photograph records both the thing in front of the camera and the condition of its making.

-Welling (14)

I think every photograph has performance built into it on a couple of levels.  There’s the performance of the photographer making a picture.  Converging on a spot, various preparations, getting lucky – all of this involves performance.  Then you have the performance of printing the photograph.  My Glass House photographs accentuate the performance of their making by intervening with things that I put in front of the camera.

-Welling (15)

The computer can be a means of distortion, discovery, or construction.  The disheartening part of digital photography is that it is more and more a sedentary act, with a refinement focused on post-production.  And in that it becomes more abstracted from the world, a “more synthetic process” as Papageorge describes it; perhaps positioning the artist more as an author.  The performance is not to interact with the world but to sit solitary, reconsidering the image, and using keystrokes and a mouse to manifest a more intentional image. From this point of view the ideal of Jeff Wall is hard to parse from the obfuscating whim or intuition of Welling.  The computer compounds the already systematic character of photography.

I think you can say that something has been done to my subjects to highly charge them.  I don’t have much confidence in my ability to define what I do other than to say that an operation, like a mathematical operation, has been performed to take the image to the limit of expressiveness.  But it’s not a systematic performance.  I abhor systems, anything resembling a system.

-Welling (16)

That you think what I’m doing is unusual indicates just how radically the concept of photography has changed in the last 80 years. Everyone is familiar with the New Objectivity of the 1920s, but between that moment and today is an incredibly rich vein of work that is pretty much discredited and forgotten about.  Subjective Photography of the 1950s is a repressed memory today.  It’s hard to grapple with a lot of that work –it’s messy, and some of it wasn’t very good.  But the history of photography didn’t begin with Ed Ruscha and the Bechers.

-Welling (17)

At UCLA, I got rid of black-and-white and bought a color processor.  Printing color is much easier than black-and-white, and I wanted the students to work more conceptually than technically.  As my students were moving into color, I had to learn how to print in color to teach them.  I never enjoyed sending my work to labs, so I hadn’t been interested in color until I could do it myself.

-Welling (18)

Andy Warhol (from the top left) Vote McGovern, 1972, Screenprint on paper; Mick Jagger, 1975, Screenprint on paper; Lita Curtain Star [Lita Hornick], 1968, Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on eight canvases, overall 55 1/2" x 9' 3"

Andy Warhol
(from the top left)
Vote McGovern, 1972, Screenprint on paper; Mick Jagger, 1975, Screenprint on paper; Lita Curtain Star [Lita Hornick], 1968, Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on eight canvases, overall 55 1/2″ x 9′ 3″

James Welling (left) 0818, 2006 (Glass House), Inkjet print, 33" x 50"; (right) 0194, 2006 (Glass House), Inket print, 14.5 x 19.5 (Images from New York Magazine)

James Welling (left) 0818, 2006 (Glass House), Inkjet print, 33″ x 50″; (right) 0194, 2006 (Glass House), Inket print, 14.5 x 19.5
(Images from New York magazine)

Welling’s most recent series, Glass House and Andrew Wyeth, have him leaving the darkroom and working entirely with digital photography as he goes back out into the world. Following the self-referential photogram work, it is as though the inherent character of photography needs to have some indexical referent to be of consequence, to escape graphics. Digital photography without need of film, enlarger, commercial lab, or photographic paper, is simply data stored in the camera, opened in Photoshop, and sent to a printer. The darkroom methods (the gesture of the hand) of Welling’s New Abstractions and Flowers can only be applied at one point in this digital process – in front of the lens when taking the photograph. The translucent filters that Welling used to colorize the photograms are now shuffled by hand in front of the camera lens to alter the images of Phillip Johnson’s Glass House.  The color of these prints is appealingly awkward and garish.  The architectural landmark answers the question of what to point the camera at, what to pay attention to; while the artist intervenes in the recording of visual information. The impetus of a commission (for New York magazine) and the resulting prints encourage us to draw parallels with the commissioned photographic work of Warhol.  Color becomes less intrinsic, more cosmetic, more of an overlay that contests, informs, and embellishes the subject.  The choice of a prominent subject with inherent cultural capital links the two artists  as well.

Midway through the exhibition one finds a selection from the series Light Sources, 1992 – 2001.  This series is an asterisk to much of the other work.  An earlier version of this series was published in 1997.  The small (8″ x 6″) paperback book mentioned earlier is comprised solely of black and white images, printed small, one per spread with the images in the first half of the book printed on the recto and the second half printed on the verso, the only text is the publishing info and a page with the titles:

Lamp; Cohoes Falls; Maine Inlet; Granite Shore; Waterfall; Maine Winter; Cohoes Falls; Pile of Junk; Logs; Morgantown; East Rock; Meriden; Gayhead Lighthouse; Will’s Basement; February 29, 1996. Ground Floor Studio; Brussel; Schelde; Plants; Glass; Midi; Logs; Night; Lisboa; Lamp; Daylight; Baffle; Antwerpen; Ravenstein.

It is an expansive small book, including images that are ordinary, romantic, spontaneous, extraordinary, graphic, and playful.  And the meaning of the book’s title morphs as a category over the course of paging through the photographs.  It’s an engaging way of contesting how meaning is assigned to photographs while building something personal, curious, and poetic.

Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. September 29, 2013-January 12, 2014. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer. Installation view of Light Sources.

Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. September 29, 2013-January 12, 2014. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.
Installation view of Light Sources.

Sink, 2000, James Welling from Light Sources, 2010 edition

James Welling, Sink, 2000
from Light Sources, 2010 edition

Light Sources as installed at the Hammer is much more extensive than the small 1997 publication. Welling continued the series for four years after publication, and it now includes a broader range of subject matter.  This is the one series where the premise of the grouping seems inclusive.  The selection of images in the Hammer exhibition appear to me sentimental, banal, diaristic, graphic, and, now with additions not seen in the initial publication: international, exceptional, elegant, functioning more as a travelogue (Brussels, Tokyo, Lisbon).  Released from the narrow parameters of other series these photographs start to reflect and more directly implicate the artist.  These are views onto an international landscape with the photographs perhaps being peripheral to the matters at hand. They capture details, oddities, settings and moments, not unlike some of William Eggleston’s compositions, with a fascination for tonality replacing Eggleston’s embrace of color.

Light Sources allows for a broader photographic practice, more inclusive than any of the other series in Monograph. The diaristic character of the images, punctuated with a cataloging of light sources (sun, Tota-Light, incandescent bulb, neon signage, etc.), reveals an investment in a more typical recording of places and people in compositions that range from casual happenstance to formal. These photographs are not as rigorously obfuscated and they share the sentimentality of the earliest portrait photographs of his classmates from the 1970s (David Salle, Erika Beckman, Jack Goldstein) seen in the first gallery of the exhibition.

Subjectivity, style, and gesture, that’s what David Salle and I were constantly talking about in the mid- to late ’70s.  Opacity and arbitrariness as opposed to transparency.

-Welling (19) 

I enjoy operating between representation and abstraction, creating conditions where you don’t really know what you’re looking at.  Like Wallace Stevens, I want my work to resist the intelligence as long as possible.

-Welling (20)

“Jack (Goldstein) was both ironic and totally sincere, and I picked those qualities up in my work.  When I made my first abstract photographs of aluminum foil in 1980, they were strongly and unconsciously influenced by Jack:  Glittering, emotional landscapes of an unknown dimension.”

-Welling (21)

Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. September 29, 2013-January 12, 2014. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer. Aluminum Foil series (8 of 36 prints) (left wall), Drapery series (right wall), watercolors (display case, foreground), Flowers series (rear wall), collaged colored gels for printing Flowers (display case, background)

Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. September 29, 2013-January 12, 2014. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.
Aluminum Foil series (12 of 36 prints) (left wall), Drapery series (right wall), watercolors (display case, foreground), Flowers series (rear wall), collaged colored gels for printing Flowers (display case, background)

The Monograph exhibition presents each of Welling’s photographic series in selectively pared down form, installed in close proximity to each other. This leads to a sense of experiencing a cross-section of work from any one point in the galleries. Standing at the entry to the New Abstractions room you can view an excerpt of Light Sources straight ahead, Flowers just to the left, Railroads Photographs, Brown Polaroids, and Gelatin Photographs by turning around.  It feels not unlike the results of a google search for James Welling.  Welling has spoken of the exhibit design intentionally making the work function in a non-linear way.  Perhaps as a consequence of this exhibition design we realize no series argues for its own cohesiveness, for a wholeness that envelops the viewer.

Recent examples of photographic series shown in their entirety in a museum context are Lewis Baltz’s Park City at UCR California Museum of Photography and Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency at MOCA. To see an artist’s series or project in its entirety can have an incredible impact. But I think I am willfully misinterpreting the word series here.  I am thinking of “series” as a body of work meant to cohere in a proposition or development of ideas.  I think many of Welling’s series function as a mode of production, engaged in process, and that each image of a series is not a facet of an idea but is a permutation of a specific process used by the artist; the effect is not unlike seeing Allan McCollum’s Over Ten Thousand Individual Works.  However, as discussed above, the fragmentary installation of Welling’s photographic series has very different results from McCollum’s, which are shown en masse.

Allan McCollum, Two details from Over Ten Thousand Individual Works, 1987/88, Enamel on cast Hydrocal, 2" diameter, lengths variable, each unique.

Allan McCollum, Two details from Over Ten Thousand Individual Works, 1987/88, Enamel on cast Hydrocal, 2″ diameter, lengths variable, each unique.

I chose photography because, much more than any other art form, all these stylistic and historical issues were built into it.  As I educated myself about its history, the possibilities multiplied.  I picked up this wonderful word, “ventriloquism,” and when I discovered photography, I realized that it was the perfect ventriloquist’s medium.  I could throw my voice into different sorts of pictures:  I could speak in many different formal languages.

-Welling (22)

The pragmatic reading of photographs, registering a visual grammar, a structure for meaning, causes the photograph to operate in a utilitarian fashion.  Legibility on these terms makes perception and cognition seem simultaneous.  Welling changes the conditions of how we read photographs with his strategies of construction that “resist the intelligence as long as possible.”

But what happens when the photographs finally give way to intelligence?  What is gleaned from the intellect?  When the ventriloquist does his act, what does the dummy (i.e. the photograph) say?  I’ve tried to pull quotes from interviews that offer me insight to this conundrum.  The exhibition didactics offer only brief quotes of the artist’s thoughts about photography, but the exhibition overall insists on reading the work through Welling’s literary influences and the creative milieu in which he spent his formative years.  Many of these influences make an appearance in the exhibition in different forms: Erika Beckman, Glenn Branca, David Salle and Jack Goldstein in portraits, Robert Lowell, Stephane Mallarme, Rainer Maria Rilke and Wallace Stevens  in paperback copies of books.

The vitrines hold the books of poetry, identified as from the personal collection of the artist, the cut mat strips mentioned earlier, an uncle’s architectural drawing, and other ephemera.  Cumulatively this presentation of materials suggests a sense of humor in the construction of a public persona and a certain irreverence to the institutional historicizing that it is facilitating.  What really is the purpose of looking at a closed book under glass that couldn’t be conveyed by author name and book title on a wall plaque?  And if a book has had importance to the artist surely it must be based not on its appearance but on the writing it contains.

In retrospect, I see that there’s no escape from the history of photography.  In 1980, some said I was rethinking Stieglitz’s “Equivalents,” making it leaner and tougher.  I was trying to escape the transparency of photography, but I was basically running away from the history of Renaissance perspective.  Now that I’m teaching, I see this much more clearly.  The model of modernist art photography has been pushed to the side by the Brady-Atget-Sanders-Evans axis, which today becomes the Becher-Struth-Gursky-Ruff school, and which is all about the document, the transparent window, the Conceptual art photograph repackaged.  It’s the new New Objectivity, with its concern for optics, lenses, and, again, Renaissance perspective.

-Welling (23)

A photographer makes meaning of the world and from the world, in tandem with the world.  And a photographer is always implicated in the resulting photographs. To avoid the photographic document as a “transparent window” Welling has held to the opacity and arbitrariness he spoke of early on with David Salle.  This avoidance of transparency involves not only disrupting the conventions of photography, but also disrupting the conventions of the relationship the artist has to his subject matter.  From this perspective the recent commission to photograph Philip Johnson’s Glass House for New York magazine makes sense because it absolves Welling of a relationship to the subject. There is an ambivalence conveyed in the Glass House photographs that draws a link to Warhol beyond the compositional strategies. It’s an ambivalence that is not joined with provocation, as Warhol often maintained with his choice of subject matter, but instead suffused with the mundane and idiosyncratic.

Shifting often from one excerpted series to another in the exhibition emphasizes the transitional space.  It directs the viewer’s attention away from the unique photographic series to the literal and figurative space between each series.  Perhaps this is an efficient way to assert a sense of the artist’s oeuvre in limited space.  But there is such an editing down of certain series (Aluminum Foil, Gelatin, Flowers, Geometric Abstractions, etc.) that they seem present only to serve the narrative of the unbridled artist moving from style to style.  But it also has the effect of leveling the work, implying an equivalence, and subsequently muting work that could otherwise be more persuasive. It’s a curatorial strategy that seems to argue for an overall cumulative effect of Welling’s photographs that’s not based on reckoning with any one particular comprehensive series.

Peter Sumner Walton Bellamy, The Photographer James Welling, 1984

Peter Sumner Walton Bellamy, The Photographer James Welling, 1984

I want to record things in the photograph that unfold over time.  The ideal work for me is a photograph that takes the viewer through several stages of understanding in untangling it.  Experience is layered, so the goal is a layered photograph that could work on a couple of levels of meaning, not simultaneously but sequentially.  You think about it, you walk away from the picture, you come back to it.  Things that are interesting to consider visually reveal themselves over time.

-Welling (24)

Image and accompanying description from Hammer Museum October 2013 email announcement.

Image and accompanying description from Hammer Museum October 2013 email announcement.

Footnotes:

(1) Lou Reed, Lyrics from Some Kinda Love, 1969

(2) Papageorge, Tod.  Interview by Richard B. Woodward.  Bomb, no. 97 (Fall 2006): pp. 22 – 30.  But I first read this quote in Moyra Davey’s Long Life Cool White:  Photographs & Essays by Moyra Davey, 2008.

(3) Tillman, Lynne. Welling in Conversation with Lynne Tillman. Artforum, May, 2001. pp. 139 – 143, ills.

(4) Spira, Anthony. Welling: The Mind on Fire, Afterall, Spring 2013. pp. 33 – 41 

(5)  Golden, Deven, “Welling,” Bomb, Spring 2004, pp. 46 – 53, ills.

(6) Sigler, Jeremy, “Pencil of Nature,” Modern Painters, April 2009, pp. 56 – 59, ills.

(7) Balaschak, Chris.  Abstract, Representational, And So Forth:  An Interview with Welling.  Octopus Journal, no. 4. (Fall 2008)

(8) Salle, David.  Images That Understand Us:  A Conversation with David Salle and Welling. LAICA Journal, no. 27 (June – July 1980)

(9) Balaschak, Chris.  Abstract, Representational, And So Forth:  An Interview with Welling.  Octopus Journal, no. 4. (Fall 2008)

(10) Welling, James.  Parsons lecture series, pt. 3. 2009.  Presented by Aperture and posted on vimeo.  http://vimeo.com/9385232

(11) Respini, Eva.  “On Photography and Influence,” Welling: Monograph, 2012. pp. 119 – 124

(12) Sigler, Jeremy, “Pencil of Nature,” Modern Painters, April 2009, pp. 56 – 59, ills.

(13) Tillman, Lynne. Welling in Conversation with Lynne Tillman. Artforum, May, 2001. pp. 139 – 143, ills.

(14)  Golden, Deven, “Welling,” Bomb, Spring 2004, pp. 46 – 53, ills.

(15)  Respini, Eva.  “On Photography and Influence,” Welling: Monograph, 2012. pp. 119 – 124

(16) Salle, David.  Images That Understand Us:  A Conversation with David Salle and Welling. LAICA Journal, no. 27 (June – July 1980)

(17)  Golden, Deven, “Welling,” Bomb, Spring 2004, pp. 46 – 53, ills.

(18) Respini, Eva.  “On Photography and Influence,” Welling: Monograph, 2012. pp. 119 – 124

(19) Tumlir, Jan, “’80s Then: Welling Talks to Jan Tumlir,” Artforum, April 2003, pp. 216 – 217, ills.

(20) Stillman, Steel, “In the Studio: Welling with Steel Stillman,” Art in America, February 2011, pp. 54 – 61.

(21) Welling, James. from Hertz, Richard.  “Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia,” 2003.  pp.103 -112

(22) Tumlir, Jan, “’80s Then: Welling Talks to Jan Tumlir,” Artforum, April 2003, p. 216 – 217, ills.

(23) Ibid.

(24)  Golden, Deven, “Welling,” Bomb, Spring 2004, pp. 46 – 53, ills.

 

 

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Notes on Looking - […] wanted to get to the bottom of this thing and find out what the photographs are all about.” Continue…
  2. Between thought and expression, lies a lifetime — John Pearson considers “James Welling: Monograph” | Notes on Looking | word pond - […] Between thought and expression, lies a lifetime—John Pearson considers “James Welling: Monograph…. […]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *