David Zwirner is pleased to present Transform, an exhibition of recent work by American photographer James Welling at the gallery’s Upper East Side location in New York. The three bodies of work on view—Julia Mamaea (2018–ongoing), Bodies (2014–ongoing), and Chemical (2010–ongoing)—were created by the artist using unorthodox photographic procedures. Moving between abstraction and representation, these series are emblematic of the breadth of Welling’s ongoing experimentation with the conventions and materials of photography.
Image: Installation view, James Welling: Transform, David Zwirner, New York, 2019
"Unlike many of his Pictures-generation peers, who used photography to ostensibly deconstruct and demystify its rhetoric of transparency and in turn examine the fundamental contingency of meaning more generally, Welling approaches the semantic ambiguity engendered by his chosen medium more sympathetically. Less a debunker than a translator … Welling has repeatedly found ways to use photography’s vital lexicon to reinterpret—and literally remediate—certain contested artistic operations such as the painterly gesture, the associative power of landscape, and the sensuous investigation of color." —Robert Slifkin in an Artforum review of Welling’s Choreograph works, presented at David Zwirner New York in 2015
"When I was photographing sculptures at the Met, I was drawn to this singular woman’s face—there is something extremely compelling about her gaze. Unlike a lot of the figures at the Met, this woman from 1st century AD has a name, Julia Mamaea, and a biography. She is one of the four Syrian princesses as they are referred to by [the historian] Edward Gibbon.
I came back to my darkroom, made a digital negative, and started trying it with this process. I noticed that certain inks would stick to the hardened gelatin. I covered the whole plate with different dyes and inks and then scrubbed it off. The image developed over the course of a couple of days; it changed, and I would add more ink. From the start, then, this process involved a lot of unexpected effects, and I came to embrace all of the imperfections and differences."
"I’ve always been interested in trying to make a handmade color photograph. I experimented with a mixture of an offset printing process called colortype, a process that is well known in photography called gum bichromate printing, and another very obscure process that involves acrylic paint.
In order to make these photographs, I coated a piece of Yupo watercolor paper with Knox gelatin and potassium dichromate, which is a sensitizer that has been used in photography since the 1860s. I coat a sheet of Yupo with potassium dichromate and gelatin, then put a negative on it, place it in an ultraviolet exposure unit, and expose the negative to the potassium dichromate. When I take it out of the unit and wash away the unhardened parts of the pictures, this light hardens the potassium bicarbonate and the gelatin in relation to what’s over them, and I get an image that looks very faint.
These are my first portraits—there’s a lot of firsts in this show. These works are the culmination of a twenty-year process of thinking about how to create handmade color photographs."
"The monochrome Chemical photographs … are … the result of an analog, hands-on process in the darkroom, through which Welling moves closer to the idea of producing painting by means of photography. Here, the painterly trace—that is, the direct expression of the painter’s physical contact with the surface, and at the same time, code for subjectivity—is set on chromogenic paper with photo chemicals (developer and fixer) rather than with paints, yet, in contrast to painting, this generates only the effect of texture. Gestural strokes and flowing forms arise through the interaction of light and chemicals with the silver content of the photo paper’s emulsion layer." —Heike Eipeldauer, "James Welling: The Ghost of Painting in Photography," 2017
"All of the Chemical works are made on ‘outdated’ chromogenic paper. I pour developer or fixer onto the paper, and the key is to try to control how dark it turns. I dilute the developer, and I have other sorts of techniques where I’ll use, for example, olive oil, and apply that so that there’s kind of a resist; the work pictured here uses powdered fixer that’s thrown onto the paper. There’s a relationship to drawing, painting, and dyadic printmaking in these pictures. One of the things I like about this dimension is that I have a lot of control, but also lots of energy in the work."
"This group of photographs is called Bodies. The genesis for this series is the work I did for Choreograph, starting in 2014, when I put three pictures in each one of the Photoshop color channels. Last summer I spent a few days in The Metropolitan Museum of Art photographing these sculptures. The very strange thing about this process I’m using is that even though it’s completely electronic, all done on the computer, there are all kinds of accidents, and strange things develop. These pictures presented to me a new color palette from the Choreographs. The Choreographs were very vibrant, with intense colors; these, for whatever reason, were more subdued. To me it’s amazing the way, even though I’m using all of these external electronic techniques, I still have this intuitive color that presents itself from the subject matter."
"This is the first picture that I made in the Bodies series; it’s an old fisherman. In all of these works there’s a kind of multiplicity of views, sometimes of the same sculpture or sometimes a combination of different sculptures. There’s a lot of discussion presently about the fact that these sculptures were not actually bleached—they were painted with very vibrant pigments, which I think to our eyes could look bizarre. In a way, I’m reasserting the color potential for these bodies. It wasn’t my primary goal to restore color to these pictures; I intended more to work with the set of issues that I was working with in Choreograph by using motion, with the addition of other elements that are penetrating and moving around the bodies."
Unless otherwise stated, all quotes by James Welling, 2018
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Archaic Torso of Apollo, 1908