That a photograph is composed of light is a frequently taught and even more frequently forgotten maxim. Light forms images when it burns shapes onto strips of sensitive film, creates pictures when projected through a negative onto chemically treated paper, and is always the most important factor in the overall success of the photograph. But light is not something we often really see. It accentuates, flatters, highlights, underscores and romanticizes a subject; it is the force — the magic — that allows the subject of the photograph to come to be, or come to seem to be. But it is rarely a picture‘s most obvious element.
In the photographs of James Welling, however, light is the central character, the primary plot line and the essential conflict. That would seem to imply that they’re abstract images, but most are not. Indeed, Welling‘s choice of subjects — a lace factory in France, the Connecticut landscape, American architecture, railroads — is extremely rational, and unapologetically faithful to the most traditional veins of photographic history; his exploration of these subjects, always in series form, is deliberate and thorough.
Despite a commitment to the conceptual value of his subjects, however, what really seems to delight Welling is the way those subjects wrestle with light. This concern is most obvious in his 1992–98 black-and-white series ”Light Sources,“ in which he traces the light in a variety of environments to sources that are both obvious (a white sun shining through a tree branch, a globular lamp in a Paris shop, a ribbon of fluorescent lighting) and not so obvious (a patch of sunlight reflecting off the body of a horse, the snow on a hill behind a tangle of leafless tree branches). In his early Polaroids, all from 1975 and 1976, light becomes watery sheets of color draped across otherwise banal interior spaces: A bicycle is swallowed by an exquisitely delicate shade of yellowing pearl; the corner of a restaurant kitchen is drenched in melancholy sea-green; a solitary shampoo bottle bleeds its own sweet pink into the fuzzy air around it. In the 1976–78 black-and-white series ”Los Angeles Architecture,“ Welling discovers light in every conceivable position: behind, beneath, above, around and inside the buildings he catalogs. In one image, hot afternoon sun sharpens the contours of a bland apartment building into a nearly abstract Cubist composition; in another, a spotlight chisels the protruding stones of a wall into daunting spikes of shadow. In one of the most dramatic, white light glows peacefully within a curtained apartment window while the shadows of a nearby plant loom beside it like a many-taloned predator.
Within the master narrative of light, Welling does weave other themes and subplots. One of his primary interests is the relationship between historical objects and present-day reality — an interest that underscores his plainspoken photographs of railroads (1987–92) and of the buildings of 19th-century architect H.H. Richardson (1988–94), but finds its most poetic expression in a series based on the honeymoon travel journal of his great-great-grandparents (written in 1840-41). In this series, Welling pairs close-up photographs of the journal’s handwritten pages with views of the couple‘s native Connecticut landscape. The pages are soft, delicately lit and stirringly sensual; the close view of the camera abstracts the writing into graceful black ribbons of ink that express the precious intimacy of the occasion, the honeymoon, without disclosing a single narrative detail. In their antiquity, however, the pages also connote a haunting sense of absence that is further reflected in the landscapes, which, though strikingly beautiful, are empty and deadened by the New England winter. Indeed, the landscapes embody a double absence: first in the physical departure of the couple from the continent during their winter honeymoon, and again in the departure of their souls from the Earth at the end of their lives. The series is a meditation on the simplest and most profound enigma of history: how to understand that duality of presence and absence in relation to one’s own daily experience of life.
Welling moves toward overt abstraction in three of the series included in the exhibition, although in each it is with objects that are identifiable when observed closely. In one, he photographs crumpled aluminum foil; in another, phyllo dough cascading down folds of heavy velvet. Each reads like a landscape. His most recent series consists of large photograms depicting pure-black, randomly overlapping rectangular shapes on a pure-white surface (achieved by exposing photographic paper overlaid with strips of paper). Like the paper collages that Matisse created near the end of his life, these works make sense as a sublimation of the issues with which Welling has grappled so diligently throughout his career. But because their extreme formal nature leaves no room for the subtlety, whether pictorial or thematic, so masterfully achieved in previous works, the series is somewhat disappointing as a conclusion to the exhibition and might best be considered an interesting current experiment.
As corny as it may sound, Welling‘s current retrospective, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art but originally organized by the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, should stand as an example to young photographers of the value of patience, groundedness and historical awareness in art making. The keen intelligence that shines through each of his images is both a pleasure and an inspiration.
Encountering the work of London-based artist Emma Kay, on view alongside the ”Snapshot“ show at the UCLA Hammer Museum, is like stumbling upon a fellow student’s high school test scores. The four works included in the show are self-imposed assignments: In one, Kay has drawn a map of the world; in another, she‘s committed her knowledge of the Bible to a single sheet of paper; in a third, she’s attempted to reiterate each of Shakespeare‘s 26 plays — all from memory. In the newest work, she has listed 2,717 objects from the Bible ”in order of appearance.“ It’s not a self-aggrandizing exercise: Though she does pretty well considering the high standards she‘s set (most people couldn’t even name all of Shakespeare‘s plays), her mistakes are blatant. Mexico and Central America have become one with South America on her map; we’ve lost Baja, Maine and the Great Lakes. Several of the Shakespeare synopses are blank but for the title, and the Bible reads with more than a few gaping holes.
The exhibition is antiseptically white, with small text rendered on white paper — the map in freehand pencil; the Bible in newspaperlike text columns; the Shakespeare in a film-script font, with one play per letter-sized sheet — and framed in light-colored wood. The detached appearance of the work, however, only makes the poignant, even emotional reaction it triggers all the more startling. Kay is dealing in deeply resonant psychological issues and raises uncomfortable questions: What is memory? What is intelligence? How do we measure self-worth in relation to cultural value? To what extent is intellectualism a performance? There‘s a degree of masochism to the work, in that Kay holds herself up to impossible and gruelingly tedious tasks. But there’s a tremendous intimacy to it as well. In laying bare the storehouse of her mind, she reveals not only the quantity of its contents but the insecurity, irritation, scorn and sense of humor that must have brought her to confront its limitations.
In short, it‘s refreshing to see a person’s entire knowledge of Shakespeare laid out so honestly when she might just as easily have dropped a few smart quotes and come off as amply intellectual. To anyone who‘s ever shrunk into the wallpaper during an intimidating cocktail-party conversation, wondering just how much this or that arrogant jerk actually knew about the subject he was so casually pontificating on, this exhibition will strike a welcome chord.