Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 28, 2016
Philipp Kaiser, ed. Things Beyond Resemblance: James Welling Photographs Exh. cat. New York: Prestel, 2015. 152 pp.; 116 color ills. Cloth $39.95 (9783791354866)
Exhibition schedule: Brandywine River Museum of Art, Chadds Ford, PA, August 8–November 15, 2015
James Welling. Glass House (2010). Archival inkjet print on rag paper. 28 x 42 in. Photography © James Welling, courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery.

Visitors to the Brandywine River Museum of Art’s Things Beyond Resemblance: James Welling Photographs who are new to Welling’s work might be surprised to discover, on the basis of the visible evidence gathered, that this artist first came to public note associated with (if not quite trading in) an appropriative photographic language at pains to estrange itself from both photography’s claims to inspired worldly reference and the fruit of art-historical influence. Here that negative ambivalence is shed for qualified embrace on both counts, with Welling engaging in what curator Philipp Kaiser calls “an homage” to Andrew Wyeth and a “selfless immersion into his work” (118). Such selfless homage carries real risks for any artist, and the exhibition’s several dozen rustic views of the world Wyeth made famous—the Olson farm in Cushing, Maine, as well as the Kuerner Farm and Wyeth’s own studio, nearer the museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania—do, at a glance, evoke the kinds of vernacular fan photography called up by web searches for these places. Welling is a fan too, if an especially deliberative one prepared to risk such “lowly” resemblance. As in his earlier studies of Philip Johnson’s glass house in New Canaan, Connecticut, citation and reference are everywhere foregrounded at the Brandywine exhibition in disarmingly beautiful, and, luckily, deeply inquisitive expressions (or, better, material accretions) of admiration for an important if counterintuitive artistic influence.

Welling’s Wyeth pictures largely set aside contemporary art photography’s increasingly de rigueur interrogation of the image-economies of reproduction and circulation. This is a mutation from Pictures-esque appropriation more in the mold of an Elaine Sturtevant than of a Richard Prince or Sherrie Levine, i.e., it is less a photographic lamination of “bad” prior meanings than a very smart artist’s curious and unsettled inquiry into the complex workings of influence. Welling, viewers come to gather, sensed that despite his schooling in more sanctioned art-world models, Wyeth’s example (set in place as a Connecticut adolescent) has never stopped mattering to Welling and he needed to figure out—through the doing of photography—just how and why. The setting welcomes this sort of patriarchal genealogy. The museum’s spiraling galleries dutifully track the force of influence as it worked its way out of early American art, through the canvases and pedagogy of the father, N. C., and into the crucible of his son Andrew’s presiding genius. Here that sequence culminates, at least so far as the floor plan dictates, in Welling’s present corpus.

If appropriation is not on the menu, then the problem of resemblance remains very much in play. Flagging an emblem for his curatorial undertaking at Brandywine, Kaiser settled upon a 2011 studio view called Fleece. I see no reason to quarrel. With its tight registration of the smeared pigment and well-worn molded leather of Wyeth’s old brown jacket as it hangs to this day in the painter’s preserved Chadds Ford studio (itself a sort of museum annex), Fleece captures Welling’s desire as a photographer to almost claustrophobically inhabit the creative atmosphere that Wyeth so carefully carved out in egg-tempera and watercolor on paper, panel, and board. Undoubtedly something vital is at stake in Welling’s selection of just this studio coat framed in just that tight way, etc. But with Welling, the burden is higher than simple iconographic, memorial recognition: the empty coat gets the viewer only halfway. Rosalind Krauss was onto something lasting in an oft-cited essay of 1989 when she observed in Welling’s early work his aptitude for “holding the referent at bay, [for] creating as much delay as possible between seeing the image and understanding what it is of” (Rosalind Krauss, “Photography and Abstraction,” in A Debate on Abstraction, exh. cat., New York: Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery, Hunter College, 1989, 66; emphasis in original).

The “what it is of” of Welling’s Fleece comes nearer to focus with the arrival of an illuminating dissonance toward the end of Kaiser’s catalogue interview with the photographer. Earlier, in his introduction, Kaiser emphasizes the loss of Wyeth’s bodily presence in Fleece (“a void gapes in Wyeth’s fleece; it’s his absence”), and Welling’s reframing of that specter through the established formal codes of his own long practice as a photographer, most pertinently in the pivotal Drapes of the 1980s (15); in other words, Welling is shown to have folded Wyeth wholly into his own operations as a photographer. In the interview, Kaiser presents Welling with his notion of the picture’s weird reanimating work, its reframing of Wyeth’s art through the medium of Welling’s sensibility (131). Welling is in agreement that Wyeth and his absence indeed haunt the series, but with a twist: “I found this fleece jacket hanging on a large mirror in Wyeth’s studio. It’s as close a portrait of Wyeth as I can ever make. After I photographed it, I noticed an unfortunate lens flare, a white haze, across the picture. But as I continued looking, I accepted the flare because it gives the photograph a ghostly sense” (131).

For Welling, it appears, any painterly Wyethian artifacts on display (a jacket; elsewhere a palette or watercolor block, and so forth) function less as talismans whose emanations might be elegiacally inventoried than as—to borrow a line from Suzanne Hudson’s splendid catalogue essay—a “skin of sensible things” (76) across which he might spread the abstractions local to his, Welling’s, own medium. Indeed, to look at the picture with any care at all is to discover that it is difficult to discern where the fleece jacket’s dusting of white pigment ends and the soft white glow of lens flare begins. Wyeth’s ghost here is bound up in his media, in his egg tempera and his watercolors and in the character of his exploitation of their properties, and it does its haunting in the glass and silicon but also wet and powdery workings of the camera, computer, and printer that combine to produce Welling’s present paper-backed pictures.

Welling speaks of himself as an artist, like Wyeth, engaged in an “aqueous medium on paper” (124), and it is an apt account of photography as a medium printed now by the inkjet printer’s wet jets of pigmented ink and long disentangled by Photoshop’s lassoes, wands, and brushes from its obligation to stubborn conditions before the lens. In Dry Pigments (2011) the translucent housing of an old Dixon pencil sharpener is cast as a sort of lens filtering light’s passage from Wyeth’s small jars of aquamarine powder pigment to Welling’s own clear lens. But Dry Pigments, like all of this exhibition’s objects, is finally, as a thing, an Epson 9800 print, and both its pigment jars and pencil sharpener are ultimately nothing other than pigment on paper, arranged in just this or that way by an artist’s sensibility and by his careful organization of pixels made material as inky marks on Museo Silver Rag. As much binds Welling’s and Wyeth’s favored media as distinguishes them.

It is an affinity keenly observed, and fresh for its humble acknowledgment as just a simple fact of Welling’s medium to be exploited as needed in the attainment of a desired pictorial effect, and no more. Welling is frequently deadpan in his presentation of digital photography’s possession of the “liquid intelligence” Jeff Wall once observed in its wet-chemistry forebears (124). Of Lestat (2011), a brilliant and funny still-life offering as rich a commentary on Wyeth as one could hope for in a single picture, Welling observes (on an adjacent placard):

As a former watercolorist I was amazed at Wyeth’s collection of watercolor blocks. Blocks are specially manufactured pads of watercolor paper that facilitate working in this aqueous medium. On top of what must have been a 50 year old block was Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat and a pair of reading glasses. I was put off by the red cover of the book so I changed it to yellow in Photoshop to better harmonize with the Morilla block it rests on.

Most of the pictures in the show diverge from the studio focus so far privileged in this review and reckon instead with the kinds of things Wyeth was looking at and painting from and about. Many reflect exposures made in 2010 but printed only one or two years later, in the wake of the studio investigations of 2011. Viewers can see the lessons learned in that studio play out in the interval. Welling’s Christina’s World (2010) resembles the 1948 Wyeth tempera that is its model just enough to better reflect upon its distinctness. Registering an exposure taken from that painting’s same low hillside position, looking up toward the Olson House, Welling’s picture yields a more verdant, even flowery landscape. Welling lowers Wyeth’s vertiginously high horizon, as if to accommodate a dense ring of evergreens absent in the earlier picture without disturbing the logic of the composition. Welling’s omission of Wyeth’s famous protagonist herself (other, lesser homages tend to include some substitute body) is more striking still: this is an adjacency in pursuit of, as the exhibition’s nice total conveys, things beyond simple resemblance—an adjacency as much conceptual and procedural as formal and thematic.

Field (2010) clarifies this ambition. It appears to have been taken at the same moment as Welling’s Christina’s World, from the same or a very nearby position, but with the camera pointing now away from the Olson House to instead take in its surrounding landscape. Tellingly, this latter picture reveals busy tractors whose work is to cut the lawn’s grass, to shape what remains of Wyeth’s landscape and so its atmospheric bearing. Welling’s Wyeth pictures are, as Sharon Lockhart observes in her essay, “images about image-making”; photography is “here used in an appropriative way to recontextualize Wyeth’s work as metanarrative” (30).

Kaiser’s catalogue interview with Welling makes clear that his own Christina’s World was, like Field’s field, also heavily worked: a composite assembled in 2012 in Los Angeles from image files gathered during a visit to Maine two years prior. (The catalogue dating is misleading and appears to correspond throughout to the date of any given work’s source image and not to its final and distinct resolution as a print after post-processing.) This is a picture cobbled together from pixels just like Wyeth’s own picture was cobbled together in sharp scratches of tempera sixty-four years before: from sketches, from memory and imagination. Wyeth is said to transcend pastoral kitsch because his work compels viewers to pay special attention to his handling of his materials in his mediation of his carefully circumscribed world. Welling’s Wyeth work, by refiguring Wyeth’s too-long maligned “descriptive realism . . . under the aegis of advanced photographic practice,” as Michael Fried’s essay suggests (55), invites viewers to pay the same kind of careful attention to how photographs get made.

Jason Hill
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, University of Delaware