Drawing with Space and Light

James Welling's new work, "Choreograph," is a series of large-scale color photographs that features images of dancers digitally laid over images of architectural structures and landscapes in such a way that they resemble doubly exposed analogue film. The series was borne of chance. Welling was commissioned to photograph the Museum of Modern Art's sculpture garden, which was designed by Philip Johnson in 1953; he began looking at archival footage of events that took place in the garden, and found himself drawn especially to the dance performances. Around the same time, he was experimenting in Photoshop with RGB color channels as a way to understand the basis of human vision, which is informed by receptors in our eyes for red, blue and green. "The way the ["Choreograph"] images came about is similar to the way that the roots of an apple tree are grafted with the stem of another species of apple to create fruit," he explains over the phone from his studio. "I had this process of working with photograph RGB channels, and I grafted onto it the archival images of dance."

The resulting "psychedelic" images, as he describes them, inspired him to begin his own independent series of images of dancers layered with architectural photographs. In his studio in Los Angeles, he held six different sessions where he had some of his students at UCLA, where he teaches photography, assume poses inspired by choreographer Martha Graham and the Ballets Russes. He photographed them using tungsten lighting and a digital camera.

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James Welling, Now in Technicolor

In the past three decades, the postmodern artist James Welling has "made abstract photographs, more normative pictures and experimented with different processes," he says. "But for the last 10 years, I've been very interested in thinking about color." He captured Philip Johnson's Glass House in the late aughts through a set of colored filters and he digitally altered his 2009 pictures of Paris's Maison de Verre. However, with "Choreograph," on display starting tomorrow at David Zwirner, Welling has developed a more physical way of deconstructing color: feeding three black-and-white images into Photoshop's red, green and blue color channels, and dragging the "adjustment" sliders until he creates one serendipitous, psychedelic composition.

As the name "Choreograph" indicates, each piece centers on dance–and represents a reunion of sorts for Welling. Before finding photography, Welling bounced from painting to sculpture to an intense year of dance (and then moved onto performance art and video), and he says, unequivocally, that seeing the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform "blew my mind."

He speaks with similar ardor about "0521" (2015), which debuts exclusively on T; he also shared a GIF, above, that shows the piece in its various states leading up to the final result. "0521" consists of of four layers: first, a photograph of David Hallberg kneeling alongside another dancer at his and Francesco Vezzoli's "Fortuna Desperata," part of the recent performance-art biennial Performa 15. That's the red channel. The blue and green channels are images of the architect Marcel Breuer's Brutalist buildings (the Murray D. Lincoln Campus Center at UMass and the Annunciation Priory in Bismarck, N.D., respectively) to lend some spatial organization. The fourth layer is a picture of an oak tree. "Then, there’s about 15 color transformations," Welling notes, emphasizing his trial and error method, which means a finished image can take months to complete. "It's messy, but when a picture works, it's extremely exciting."

Welling volunteers a new thought that’s been percolating during the conversation: "A friend of mine said, 'The great thing about Beethoven was he used all of the keys on the piano,' and I want to use all of the colors in Photoshop." He pauses. "I actually want to have even more colors."

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