New York

James Welling

Consider the Rorschach effect typically experienced when looking at James Welling’s photographs. One cannot place these images; even if one knows what they are ostensibly of—aluminum foil, pastry dough, drapery, gelatin—one is unable to stop the spiraling movement that transforms the photograph into a surface of sheer projection. It has been similarly difficult to place Welling as an artist: He refused to embrace the media appropriations of his postmodernist peers, and his photographic investigations seemed to emerge into the art world of the late ’70s without specific precedent.

One of the merits of this small but museum-quality exhibition was that it allowed for such a precedent to be located—for the work of historicization to begin. For in addition to selections from most of the major series that established Welling’s reputation in the early ’80s, this show included a small group of previously unexhibited photographs from the late ’70s, most of them focusing on details of vernacular architecture. Since the moment of its birth, photography has of course been deeply entwined with the imaging of architecture; in Guilford, 1977, Welling seems to give a nod to the repetitive tendency of photographers to allegorize their medium’s own procedures when faced with architectural spaces. The dimly lit interior, punctuated mainly by a translucent, luminous curtain, called to mind nothing so much as the camera obscura—one light-pierced box (the camera) facing another (the private interior). However, this imaging of vernacular architecture—elsewhere on view are photos of California street scenes, apartment complexes, fairgrounds, and advertising signage—was of course central to the project of many Conceptual artists, from Ed Ruscha’s photobooks to Dan Graham’s “Homes for America” series and the Bechers’ industrial archaeology. It is in its links to and transformations of this Conceptual project that Welling’s early photographic production and more recent career must be understood.

Like the majority of Conceptualist work, Welling’s architectural photographs ban all traces of human presence from the images themselves. But if Conceptual art was attracted to architecture for its seeming purchase on the real, Welling subjects architectural forms to a repetitive derealization. Part of this process is temporal in nature: Welling chose seemingly crepuscular moments for many of these photos, and the extreme angle of the setting sun continually throws the architectural forms either into relief or obfuscation. In Alley Shadows, 1978, the graphic markings of late-day, raking shadows become more prominent than the buildings onto which they are pitched; in other photographs, such as Evening Outlook, 1978, a picture of a building behind which the setting sun has already disappeared, the blinding light of the absent sun simply casts the architectural masses into negative delineation. The buildings become almost absent objects themselves, lacking all detail, reduced to the status of contours. Other images, taken at night, feature a meditation on artificial light sources, a subject that has reappeared in Welling’s recent work; here too, however, the light exists solely to project the architectural and other objects in negative relief. Xmas Trees, 1976, and Hartfields, 1977, feature Christmas trees set against glaring advertising and store signs, and Apt. SM, 1977–78, and Window, Santa Monica, 1977, depict illuminated windows that reduce architectural form to a mere skin for the containment of light. All these works seem engaged in a subtle reflection on the intrinsic function assumed by the negative image in the photographic medium; sirmlarly, they ingeniously transform light itself into its own potential negation. Here, light provides neither illumination nor the clear totality of image that Barthes termed the photographic “studium.” Rather, light is rendered excessive, blinding, disintegrative; and photography—the writing of light—becomes less a mode of access to the real, as the Conceptualists would have had it, than its perpetual frustration and deferral.

George Baker