James Welling

at Donald Young, through April 22

By Fred Camper

James Welling’s 14 large abstract photographs at Donald Young offer a sly commentary on art’s evolution away from its roots in stone and cloth and plant dyes and toward film and video and the digital world. The thick black bands against white backgrounds in his “New Abstractions” series might resemble girders at a construction site–except that most of the black bands are diagonals at various angles and there are far too many even for a fantasy postmodern building. These bold black slashes hint at Franz Kline’s brush strokes–except that they’re straight edged and of constant width. One might expect that these abstractions would tell us something about photographic possibilities–except that there are no grays, and Welling’s blacks and whites lack the deep, almost three-dimensional resonance of most photographic prints. Welling sets his black bands at different angles–many are nearly vertical or horizontal–to suggest movement as well as its disruption. There’s just enough disorder and asymmetry to create dynamic compositions, but to what end?

These works eschew both the idea of the photograph as a window onto reality and the modernist foregrounding of materials. In fact Welling’s blacks are so flat they seem to merge with the paper. Looking closely, one sees that the diagonal edges of the black bands are composed of very fine sawtooth patterns, a sign that at some stage this was a digital image made up of square pixels.

Welling’s works had their start in one of the most “primitive” photographic processes, the photogram. He cut cardboard strips between one-eighth inch and one inch wide, laid them on top of photographic paper, and exposed it to light. He then scanned the photographs and printed out digital negatives; what’s on view are 52-inch-high photographic enlargements from those negatives. If the photograph that’s a window conjures up whatever it shows, and a modernist image reminds the viewer of the photographic process and materials, these works seem deracinated, immaterial, orphans of the digital age. The fact that two are in negative form–the bands are white–further distances the viewer from the works’ source, the original photograms.

Welling also created a few images without digital means, making enlargements from the original photogram. Coming across one of these, one suddenly notices that the edges are without pixel patterns. But perhaps because they’re so enlarged, they don’t seem any closer to the images’ source. In the disturbing manner of much of the best recent art, Welling’s work denies understanding, refusing to make sense of imagery. Rather than explain, the artist has become the guru of silence, the sage who knows that earlier explanations were myths. Though Welling describes some of his methods in a “technical information” note available in the gallery, his explanation makes these photographs seem even more rootless, hovering in some virtual space.

Using a knot of precise, interconnected strategies to dematerialize his imagery, Welling articulates a condition common today. A city skyline in a magazine ad may be unidentifiable because it’s a digital confection made from images of various cities–or of buildings that don’t even exist. The faces and bodies of models are often highly manipulated; a few years ago one of the biggest pop stars in Japan was a 16-year-old “girl” who was a complete digital creation: she existed only on video or film, which surely simplified contract negotiations.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1951 and now head of photography at the University of California at Los Angeles, Welling has been making photographs for much of his life. Indeed, one of his earliest works–Sun (1975), five Polaroid photographs of the Los Angeles sky–is on view here. Welling writes that these were taken “during a period of intense forest fires around Los Angeles; the air was so smoky that the sky turned a brownish orange for a few days.” Distantly related to the “New Abstractions” works, these pictures of an orange disk in a sea of orange brown deny not only the world but the very source of its light, blocked by a kind of intervening veil that might be seen as a metaphor for the photographic process. The sun’s disk recalls the lens, the flat orange haze the qualities of film and paper, and the theme becomes the impossibility of seeing beyond such barriers.

In a 1998 catalog essay Ulrich Loock wrote, “One might argue that the search for equivocal images has been a driving force in all [Welling’s] output so far.” Even when the works are not abstract–as in Sun or the 18 new digital prints of Polaroids made in 1975 and 1976, also on view–something intervenes to distance the viewer from the subject. Of course digitization removes one from the original objects in the Polaroids: the colors seem at once more precise and less thick. But Welling’s compositions are also apparently intended to obscure rather than illuminate the subject, his first residence and its environs. In Watercolor Palette severe underexposure mutes the contrast between a paint-splattered tray and a bright wall. Studio Corner With Coat, TV Etc. shows the top edge of a TV from behind, a corner where walls meet ceiling, and a dark coat hanging on the left. It’s difficult to pick out the eponymous subject in the underexposed Restaurant Sink, sitting in darkness near the bottom of the image; among the picture’s “highlights” are a few pots and pans and a dark doorway. Orange Window, showing a daylit window whose blinds are shut, is once again about a barrier to seeing.

The elegance of Welling’s work sets up expectations that it then seeks to deny. Perhaps it’s no accident that the “New Abstractions” series evokes the skeletons of skyscrapers: both are bold forms brought together by human choice. Similarly, Welling’s camera in the small digitized Polaroids represents the human effort to see: it tries to make contact with the world, tries to make sense of it. But the objects it encounters remain inscrutable just as the “skyscraper frames” are in actuality immaterial. Contemplating the limits of image making, Welling puts us in a strange, mute place–we realize that all images are artificial constructs that block our view of the world more than they reveal it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Van Eynde.