Taking as its touchstones the life and work of American painter Andrew Wyeth, James Welling’s new series of photographs – ‘Overflow’ (2012) – traces the artist back to his haunts in Maine and Pennsylvania. And haunt is what the photographs do, stalking Wyeth – or his elusive spectre – to the spaces fundamental to, and familiar from, his influential corpus of mid-20th-century painting. Based on the canvas The Revenant (1949), which depicts a man clad in white in a spartan, peeling interior, Welling’s photograph of the same name depicts a room now shorn even of its eponymous phantom. The overexposed interior appears at once blindingly bright and murky. The viewer’s gaze gropes around the image as if thrust into this hazy space, spying a door left suggestively ajar, but never quite able to focus.
Whether panoramic landscapes, still lifes or details of derelict buildings, all of Welling’s pictures evoke Wyeth’s now-vanished presence: his abandoned easel, old pigment jars. Like Revenant, many of the works are based upon actual paintings, not least Wyeth’s masterpiece, Christina’s World (1948). Perched on the crest of a windswept knoll in the painting, the Olson House and barn exude a Hitchcockian menace – all understatement even in its anxiety, an unease rivalled only by the empty sweep of the field and the mysterious isolation of the girl’s tensed body. The canvas seems – like the Edward Hopper painting next to which it hangs at New York’s MoMA – to borrow something of the cinematic, and hence the photographic. Welling’s inkjet print, Christina’s World (2010), does not try to rival Wyeth’s sense of strangeness. Though staked out from the same angle as the painting, the photograph reveals a kind of deadpan. The structures appear like any others on a (now wooded) hilltop in Maine. In place of wispy, ochre grass we find a verdant field of green; instead of portentously fluttering crows, a few clouds dot a banal blue sky.
The characteristic sepia tones of Wyeth’s paintings would seem to prescribe any photographic counterparts. Yet Welling opts – to successful effect – for an approach all his own. To be sure, a few pictures conjure up a kind of backwoods dread: an old shed with a rusty saw and unused farm tools. But, for the most part, the images are less wedded to Wyeth than to a more general sense of absence. Panoramas of the Olson farm alternate with the close-up of a door with peeling paint (Studio Door, 2011). The image of an old, prodigious tree (Sycamore) sits next to Foundation (both 2010), unremarkable but for the gnarled masses of concrete and paint that comprise it. Welling evokes a kind of phenomenology of aging through different scales and subjects: blue paint chipped away from the back of a door; an old frying pan hanging next to a grimy rag; the exposed slats of an interior wall.
Not all of the pictures suggest dilapidation, whether in form or format. One still life of a ceramic plate, cup and knife (Groundhog Day, 2010) suggests the Puritan simplicity of Wyeth’s imagery. But more striking is End of the Road (2012), depicting the interior of an abandoned car, moss creeping over its windshield and mould invading the clunky, outmoded dashboard. A similar organicism marks one of the show’s most arresting images, River Cove (2010): a close-up of a bubbling pond, its algae-green waters reflecting the web of trees hovering above. Worthy of some Giverny pond by Monet, the image’s textured surface betrays Welling’s abiding interest – over his entire career – in the photography of abstraction and the abstraction of photography.
By way of introduction to the exhibition’s main room and the majestic hang of the Wyeth series, a set of six photograms titled Fluid Dynamics hung in the small side gallery. However abstractly, as it were, they relate to the Wyeth series, since their colours are based upon a sample of hues from those images. Seemingly solarized, tones of purplish blue and pale, salmon white bleed onto their opposite. If one image suggests a budding flower or the curl of a wave, the next offers up forms unresolved in their aqueous splatter. Even within the space of a few inches, the abstractions shift in scale from the microscopic to the cosmic. Such an effect is, of course, a projection. The photograms record nothing but the indexical rendezvous of water, photo-sensitive paper and light. The exhibition’s press release emphasizes the works’ affinities with watercolour. But the brash swagger of pigment here suggests liquid states far more improvised and aleatory – spraying and slinging, rippling and seething.
Again, Welling’s interest in abstraction cannot be cleaved from his figurative – and more literary – sensibilities. (A couple of images from the Wyeth series reveal not just the painter’s books on Albrecht Dürer – a key influence – but an abandoned Anne Rice novel.) Thus, fittingly rounding out the exhibition was a third room dedicated to Frolic Architecture (2010) – greyish, abstract photograms created to illustrate THAT THIS, a book of collage-poems by Susan Howe. Welling first painted on thin sheets of Mylar, before pressing these onto photographic paper which he then exposed. More faded in appearance than the Fluid Dynamics images, the Frolic works bear a certain patina. Though these gelatin silver prints similarly conjure up a range of scales, textures and proportions, they are marked by residual geometries and in places suggest a hand-wrought creasing or even a vestigial grid. Welling’s contributions to, and inspiration by, poet and painter alike beg the question: do the photographs and photograms succeed on their own terms? I think the answer is affirmative. But more striking is the extent to which Welling’s work suggests that – in spite of its privileged, indexical relation to the real – photography is always already inflected by other practices, whether the narratives and memories that haunt abstraction, or the abstraction that lurks intrinsic to the most figurative of images.