James Welling

Donald Young Gallery

“I picked up this wonderful word, ‘ventriloquism,’ and when I discovered photography, I realized that it was the perfect ventriloquist’s medium,” James Welling said in a 2003 interview with critic Jan Tumlir. “I could throw my voice into different sorts of pictures: I could speak in many different formal languages.” After thirty years, however, even a practice predicated on difference can yield tautologies. Not so for Welling; he has remained diligently attentive to the structural variations possible within his medium, moving with admirable fluidity from one innovative investigation to the next.

To frame this overview exhibition, which samples eighteen of Welling’s heterogeneous bodies of work, the artist seized on another concept: hapax legomena. The term—taken from philology by way of filmmaker Hollis Frampton—refers to words that only appear once in an author’s oeuvre. Yet every work here is not singular. Rather, the show features an example or two from several of Welling’s serial examinations. Installed in a loose chronological trajectory, the mostly small-scale pieces resemble a collection of curious thumbnail-like specimens from an unconventionally classified history of photography. Darkroom experiments brush up against documentary photographs, nonreferential abstractions mingle with images of modernist architecture, and early Polaroid studies hang adjacent to traditional studio photography. And unlike most in-depth surveys, which require copious amounts of real estate, this show fits comfortably in Donald Young Gallery’s modest new space on Michigan Avenue.

Of the twenty-seven works ringing the gallery walls, Welling’s early appropriations of Marlboro advertisements (predating Richard Prince’s rephotographed cowboys by six years) appear first. The offset print Untitled (Come to Where the Flavor Is), 1975, for example, depicts a cowboy’s weathered, tobacco-stained hand holding a burning cigarette. The source was culled from a collection of such images Welling began assembling in the early 1970s after viewing Frampton’s 1968 film Surface Tension, in which Kasper König is heard in voice-over talking about color in American cigarette advertising. In stark contrast to these appropriation experiments is an early Polaroid depicting a reductive field of burnt orange and a tiny glowing point in the center. Titled Sun, 1975, the photo was taken from Welling’s balcony in Los Angeles and captures the lingering smoke from a succession of forest fires. Also capturing an anomalous tone, Untitled, 1980, depicts a still life of a brass bell in front of heavy drapery. The silver-gelatin print was scorched and washed with brown ink; as if to exaggerate the faded romanticism of the photo, Welling introduced craquelure across its surface. These tiny fissures make the image unique—an example of hapax legomena, perhaps.

In addition to its presentation of Welling’s early stylistic shifts, the exhibition displays small-scale examples of his celebrated serial inves- tigations of foil, drapery, and flowers. His tricolor photographs are chromogenic prints made by exposing the same piece of film to red, green, and then blue filters. In Farnsworth House (Scratched), 2006, and Glass House, 2008, two works produced using this technique, flares of saturated color fringe the perpendicular planes of midcentury architectural icons. Water Study 2 and Water Study 3 (both 2009) are photograms bearing the brilliant blue and purple traces of pooling liquid. December, 1998, appears traditional by comparison. This view of a city at twilight portrays a blue-tinted snow-covered rooftop, while glowing orange light emanating from windows seems to pierce the brick facade of an apartment building. This documentary photo- graph—another singular experiment—bears traces of Welling’s voice as it furthers his discontinuous yet taxonomic picture-making practice.

Michelle Grabner