Los Angeles

James Welling, Portrait of a Woman from a Grave Marker, 2022, oil on laser print, 11 3⁄8 × 17 1⁄8".

James Welling, Portrait of a Woman from a Grave Marker, 2022, oil on laser print, 11 3⁄8 × 17 1⁄8".

James Welling

Throughout his nearly five-decade-long career, James Welling has produced straightforward photographs of architecture, modern dance, and the artist’s (specifically, Andrew Wyeth’s) studio, in addition to creating studies of texture and light and photograms of floral arrangements, among other things. His is a careful and at times safe sort of experimentation that reconsiders the materiality, spatiality, and chromaticism of his chosen medium via tasteful compositions. Rarely, however, has the artist’s aesthetic tinkering generated such refreshingly unexpected and delightfully odd images as those in “Iconographia,” Welling’s eleventh solo show with Regen Projects. Featured were pieces from the artist’s latest series, “Personae,” 2021–22, in which he took black-and-white images of antique figurative statuary—many scanned from books or pulled from the internet—digitally colored them, superimposed the eyes of people from famous paintings onto them, and then handworked the surfaces of the resulting prints, adding or removing pigment. The earliest of the bunch, Portrait of Kore 674, 2021, for example, began as a scanned picture of a marble maiden from the collection of the Acropolis Museum in Athens. Welling used Photoshop to give her eyes from an Édouard Manet painting, digitally colored the image’s background and facial features, printed it, wet it, and then applied a thin veil of black oil paint to the work’s entire surface, a finishing touch that dulled the saturated hues and unified the grounds.

The twenty-five “Personae” pieces in this show are close-cropped images of similarly titled busts, e.g., Portrait of Venus, Portrait of a Philosopher, and Portrait of an Egyptian Woman, all 2022. As portraiture, these composite photographs seemed to breathe with life, as if Welling had captured each “sitter’s” innate personality. Take Portrait of Aphrodite, 2022, who longingly stares at the viewer with softly rendered yet piercing amber eyes, or Portrait of a Roman Woman from a Funerary Relief, 2022, reminiscent of the titular figure in Dorothea Lange’s famous 1936 Migrant Mother photo with its weathered carved face, air of pensiveness, and three-quarter profile. Works such as Portrait of a Woman from a Grave Marker and Portrait of a Roman Man, both 2022, were more unsettling, their crumbling, ghoulish faces sickly tinted as their undead eyes burned with startling energy. Welling’s subjects called to mind the singing stone busts at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride, ready to jump into monstrous action at any moment. Overall, the artist’s “Personae” are unusually hyperreal because they efficiently collapse photography, sculpture, painting, printing, drawing, and the digital into a single image. One medium swallows another, the artist serving as the hungry force compelling them.

Also included in this show were thirteen photos from Welling’s “Cento” series, 2019–, which similarly features altered photos of antique artifacts from Mediterranean regions. In these pieces, Welling seemingly wants to return ancient art and architecture to its original polychromatic appearance, which was alive with color, gilding, and inlay, as recent scholarship has revealed. Like artists and artisans of centuries past, Welling uses flamboyant hues to bestow an immediacy and narrative depth on otherwise anemic forms. (As an aside, Jeff Koons also debuted a polychromatic rendition of antique statuary this past summer with his sculpture Apollo Kithara, 2019–22, installed at the Slaughterhouse, Deste Foundation’s project space on the island of Hydra in Greece). Perhaps Welling’s interest in a brilliantly kaleidoscopic past provides a way for him to reanimate dead civilizations. It’s an ethos that makes perfect sense in this era of never-ending extinction.