Although they are lucid, cerebral and often sensuous, James Welling's photographs can be daunting to write about, in part because they frustrate many assumptions that persist in clinging to his chosen medium. It doesn't help that some of his images are intended to be, in his words, 'difficult to decipher'. Welling has also remarked that his often highly coded photographs function like poetry, but it doesn't follow that they 'can only be understood by the imagination within', as one critic has written - they seem too wary of photography's potential to romanticize or alienate, too careful to solicit an appropriate response, to invite only imaginative interpretation.
Welling's recent New York show spanned several decades and reflected his habit of working in more than one mode at a time, since the newer works on view were both representational and abstract. The latter included works from three series: 'Degradés' (1998), 'New Abstractions' (1998-2000) and 'Mystery Photographs' (2000). Perhaps most intriguing among these were the 'New Abstractions', stark black and white images made by arranging paper strips of various widths in dramatic, criss-crossing compositions on photosensitive paper. Hardly mere formal exercises, these images are highly self-conscious, although it's a self-consciousness as subtle and as easy to miss as the delicately torn edges of the paper strips. Printed in negative so the areas originally left white appear black, they echo László Moholy-Nagy's grid-like urban scenes as much as his photograms.
Equally rigorous are 24 gelatinsilver contact prints entitled Eastern Window (1997-2000), all of which depict the same rooftop scene visible from a window in the artist's home. Welling also shot the photographs in colour as well as in black and white, at different times of day and under varying weather conditions. Thanks to their overall darkness, some convey a creeping sense of mystery, although it's a mystery that paradoxically conveys no hidden inner meaning. Michael Fried has pointed out that this effect, often found in Welling's work, doesn't derive from an absence of light while shooting, but rather a surplus of it in the printing process, as if, in his words, 'the darkening were a function of a special sensitivity in the recording surface rather than being inherent in the photographed scene'. Others, meanwhile, yield a range of impressions, from utter mundanity to a quietly transcendent beauty signalled by a sunset blush, a pale moon or a row of golden illuminated windows.
By repeatedly returning to the same subject, one that may well have intense personal resonance, Welling seems not to aspire to document it completely, or even to suggest the passage of time (although time is something of which he always seems acutely conscious). Rather, through detailed, supremely controlled images he conveys the unreproducibility of the material reality outside his window.
The exhibition also included 22 chromogenic prints made from Polaroids shot in the mid-1970s. They were taken when Welling was a recent graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, where he was taught by John Baldessari, amongst others, and became interested in a conceptual approach to photographic-based media. Although these small-scale works document banal subjects and employ a snapshot format, they are anything but casual: strikingly artful, they are notable not only for their measured compositions, rich tones and pristine detail, but also for an intense awareness of the quality and texture of the light that fills the space between object and viewer. Most of these images are dazzlingly simple: Orange Window (1976), for example, depicts sunlight filtering through bamboo blinds, while Motel (1976) captures the barest sliver of a motel sign at night, perpendicular to a narrow bar of light underneath the building's eaves. The sombre, almost painterly Eggs (1976) and Marble Counter Top and Urn (1976), in which a glass jar and urn are discernible only in the form of reflections glinting on their transparent surfaces, are contemplative images reminiscent of nothing so much as Chardin still lifes; at the same time they don't aspire to mimic painting, but to exploit the particular possibilities of the Polaroid process while exploring light, colour and framing.
Unlike the work of many photographers popular in recent years, Welling's project has steadfastly avoided any hint of narration, steering clear of two enduring potential pitfalls: a specious realism and an obvious exploitation of photography's innately surreal aspects. Resisting easy assimilation, his photographs don't carry the kind of contagion that Susan Sontag defined as one of the drawbacks of 'photographic seeing'. Both oblique and utterly straightforward, they don't change the way we see the world, but rather make us conscious of how we see it, achieving a tension between objectivity and subjectivity that is a stubbornly difficult achievement.