James Welling – The Mind on Fire

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James Welling – The Mind on Fire



15 Nov, 2013 to 12 Jan, 2014

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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 moment of energy, thought and production from that time.

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 theAluminum Foils, Drapes, High Contrast, Gelatin and Tile Photographs. Now seen as major works, minutely crumpled aluminium foil evokes starry skies or lunar landscapes; luxurious drapes sprinkled with dough suggest snow-capped mountain ridges. By focusing on simple, repetitive motifs Welling sought to remove photography from its subject, in order to trigger personal associations in the viewer and to explore how we see, rather than what we see. These works were frequently 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.”

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 and Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea — CGAC, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Special thanks also to David Zwirner, New York; Maureen Paley, London; Galeria Marta Cervera, Madrid; Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Galerie Nelson-Freeman, Paris.

We acknowledge the generous support of the U .S. Consulate General Vancouver and Capture Photography Festival.






Exhibition Bulletin





James Welling  


Related Learning

William Wood is an art historian and critic concentrating on the history of conceptual art and contemporary Canadian and international work in photography, moving pictures and installation. Starting as a critic and editor with C Magazine, Vanguard, Parachute and Public, Wood went on to a doctorate at the University of Sussex and has taught at universities in the United Kingdom, Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario. Recent publications include essays for Ian Wallace: At the Intersection of Painting and Photography and Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965–1980. Forthcoming are writings on The Piano, an exhibition held at the Art Gallery of Alberta this past summer, and Michael Morris: Letters for the Helen and Morris Belkin Art Gallery. For his Feedback talk Wood addressed his remarks to the theme of the para-photographic as it related to the James Welling exhibition and other artists working with photography.

This series invites cultural and critical producers to present thoughts and ideas rooted in their own interests and practices, and invites audiences to join in the conversations that will explore relevant contemporary issues, theories, ideas and culture.


William Wood


Related Blog Posts

On Thursday, December 12th, the Point Grey Secondary grade twelve, Art Careers class visited the Contemporary Art Gallery for a full day workshop. 

They spent the day exploring James Welling’s exhibition The Mind On Fire with a focus on studying curatorial practice and conceptual art practices.  As part of the investigation they undertook an experiential response to Welling’s working methods, by conducting a photo-shoot in which students were asked to explore in-camera abstraction techniques. They spent their lunch hours creating images while exploring downtown Vancouver. 

The students were interested in questioning our assumptions of perception and the photographic image, as well as how the inherent ambiguity affected the reading of an image. The students met afterward to discuss and edit the images and categorize them based on the abstraction technique or subject matter of the photographs.  In effect the students curated an exhibition of photography, taking a cue from Welling in grouping images based on intended effect.

The CAG is excited to present a selection images of their work, see above for a slide show. A big thank you to the whole Point Grey HS  Art Careers class and the artists we are presenting here: Kiel Torres, Catherine Wang, Cosette Bote, Aly Slobadov, Nancy Tseng, Forever Young, Kevin McAllum. They’ve posted more images on their Point Grey Art Blog.

The CAG welcome groups of all ages and levels for free guided visits. We also produce guided visits with art-making responses to the exhibitions on display.

Contact [email protected] for more information.

– Shaun Dacey, Curator of Learning and Public Programs


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