James Welling, 4776, 2015 © James Welling Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner
HONG KONG – David Zwirner is set to present work by the American photographer James Welling, on view across two floors of the gallery’s Hong Kong location. The exhibition will mark the first solo presentation of the artist’s work in Greater China and will provide an overview of Welling’s forty-year career in photography, with key series from the 1980s to the present that highlight his ongoing exploration of abstraction, figuration, colour, and process.
Welling’s first major body of work, Aluminum Foil (1980–1981), is made up of black-and-white close-ups of crumpled aluminum foil. This early work signaled a break with traditional ideas of the medium by shifting attention to constructing images for the camera rather than finding them in the world. The Aluminum Foils initially read as abstractions, but upon further viewing other readings emerge: starry skies, rippling water, summer foliage, geological strata. This tightrope act in which the work hovers between abstraction and representation became one of the hallmarks of Welling’s practice.
Thirty years after Aluminum Foil, Welling began Chemical (2010–), his ongoing series of chemigrams (photographs made in room light with photographic chemicals on black-and-white photo paper). Using different tools to spread liquid and powdered developer across photosensitive material, Welling creates abstractions resembling miniature action paintings. As with the Aluminum Foils, the viewer is presented with an abstraction that lends itself to figurative readings—abstraction on the edge of representation.
Welling began using color in 2004 for Flowers, a series of photograms (cameraless photographs) that he created until 2017. The first Flowers were made in a color darkroom by layering brightly colored gels above a black-and-white negative of a flower to produce irregular fields of vibrant color. In 2014, Welling started working with flower imagery on the computer using the red, green, and blue color channels of Photoshop. The work became increasingly psychedelic and several examples of Flowers in the show are among his most intense and vibrant.
As Welling worked on Flowers, he developed a parallel project, Glass House (2006–2010), photographs of the architect Philip Johnson’s Connecticut home built in 1949. Again, Welling turned to the color filters from the early Flowers, this time holding them up in front of the camera lens. Glass House evolved over four years of visits and encompasses multiple views of The Glass House and the surrounding landscape in all seasons.
In Choreograph (2014–2020), Welling applied the intense colors of the recent Flowers to superimpose images of landscape, architecture, and modern dance. (Welling studied dance briefly in his early 20s.) For the dance images, he photographed rehearsals and performances of a dozen dance companies, including the LA Dance Project and the Lucinda Childs Dance Company. By compositing these images, Welling produces what could be called “digital collages” where layers of figuration obscure and compete with each other. Bodies, begun in 2018, uses a similar layering technique but emphasizes the body over landscape and architecture. However, in these photographs, we no longer see a modern dancer but rather a god or a mortal from antiquity.
Welling continues to picture Greek and Roman sculptures for his most recent series Cento, begun in 2019. After photographing sculptures and objects in dozens of museums around the world, the Cento photographs use a process the artist invented in which he applies oil paint to photographic prints. A cento is a poem made up of lines from other poems. In titling his series Cento, Welling draws these fragments from antiquity into a new pictorial whole.
James Welling’s Metamorphosis runs from 1st April to 8th May 2021 at David Zwirner Hong Kong, 5–6/F, H Queen’s, 80 Queen’s Road Central Hong Kong. For more information, visit their website here