James Welling | The Mind on Fire

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James Welling, installation view from ‘The Mind on Fire’, Contemporary Art Gallery, November 15, 2013 – January 12, 2013. Photography by SITE Photography

Exhibition | James Welling | The Mind on Fire

November 15, 2013 - January 12, 2014


James Welling
The Mind on Fire
November 15, 2013 – January 12, 2014

The Contemporary Art Gallery presents a major solo exhibition of early work by American artist James Welling.

Welling emerged as a seminal figure in the “Pictures Generation”, an influential group of artists including Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. Working in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they were acclaimed for their pioneering use of photography and for opening up a new set of questions about art and the nature of representation. This exhibition, and the publication that accompanies it, are titled The Mind on Fire to evoke a febrile time of energy, thought and production from that period.

James Welling came to photography after working in painting, sculpture, dance, performance, conceptual art, film and video, The experimental and ephemeral works Welling produced from 1969-1986, demonstrate a range of ideas, reference points and concerns that at times seem incompatible to each other. In his earliest watercolours and super 8mm films such as Sculpture, 1970, Film, 1971, made near his parent’s home in Connecticut, as well as other work produced at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh from 1969 to 1971, we see traces of contrasting styles stretching from Abstract Expressionism to Post-Minimalism. The extent of these references and methods remind us that Welling’s work cannot be easily compartmentalized. In the early 1970s Welling became interested in a range of different modes of documentation – Xerox, microfilm, photo-offset printing, maps, statistical data, advertising and scientific imagery.  The wide-ranging ephemera presented in this exhibition, chart these influences and shifting ideas, clues and hints, full of potential to be mined in the future.

Throughout the period of work comprising the exhibition Welling sought his own voice by insisting on the validity of such contrary models rather than prioritizing one over the other. Welling adopted this approach in order to problematize the rehearsed formulations of modernist theory so that his photographs of aluminum foil and drapery offer shifts and changes in readings from their inherent ambiguity and the evocative titles that point beyond the literal. In 1982 Welling wrote “… my aspiration (is) to produce images which are both densely associative and self-referencing.” This clear statement of intent and a selection of other early writings reproduced in this book shed light on this intense and decisive period of work. They show how Welling drew on his longstanding preoccupations and his grounding in conceptualism as he moved into photography with Hands (1975), Los Angeles Architecture and Portraits (1976-78) and Diary of Elizabeth and James Dixon (1840-41)/ Connecticut Landscapes begun in 1977.

Welling described his earliest photographs as images where many lines of thought and emotion could intersect. Poetry was an important template for this idea. Welling began reading poetry at Carnegie-Mellon starting with Wallace Stevens and Robert Lowell. Stevens’s lush modernist vocabulary and his ideas about abstraction were extremely important early influences as was Lowell’s use of personal and family imagery. In Los Angeles Welling discovered the work of Rainer Maria Rilke and Stéphane Mallarmé. Through Mallarmé in particular, Welling discovered that it might be possible to convey an effect without an object, thus providing the generating principle for his photographs made after 1979. As Rosalind Krauss succinctly stated in 1989 when discussing Welling’s early photographs in Photography and Abstraction, he “created as much delay as possible between seeing the image and understanding what it was of.”

Throughout the period of The Mind on Fire, painting remained a resource to Welling; his interest in scale, surface, materiality, tactility and process evolved directly from his engagement with small paintings that preceded his photographic work. These qualities came to the fore in the solo exhibitions at Metro Pictures and Cash/Newhouse in New York in 1981, 1982 and 1985, and in the Aluminum Foils, Drapes, High Contrast, Gelatin and Tile Photographs. These works were contact printed to gain what Welling described as “a facsimile effect,” involving no enlargement from the negative. As Welling stated at the time, “the (small) image convinces me of its truth in a way larger images cannot“.

Welling’s relationship to the spaces in which he lived and worked influenced his photographs from the earliest taken in Los Angeles, to the pivotal images that emerged after his move to New York. In 1976 Welling photographed his loft and the restaurant in which he worked for Polaroids. His experience as a cook in New York was crucial for his Aluminum Foil and Drapery photographs and the downtown music scene in New York played an important role. After meeting musicians Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham and Kim Gordon in New York City at the end of the 1970s, he attempted to create photographic equivalents to the concentrated and immersive sonic environments of their concerts. The exhibition and publication, Mind on Fire, brings together around one hundred of Welling’s early, experimental and abstract works from this period, statements which surround the mechanical and philosophical parameters of photography, being tested through a variety of photographic paper, film, cameras; materials in flux and subject to a myriad of simultaneous meanings.

This exhibition has been developed in partnership between MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, UK; Centro Galego de Arte Contemporànea in Santiago de Compostela, Spain and the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver.  Special thanks also to David Zwirner, New York; Maureen Paley, London; Galeria Marta Cervera, Madrid, Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Galerie Nelson-Freeman, Paris.