Published in Artforum, November 2012. For more information about and images from the exhibition, click here.
There are two dominant ways in which photographers have envisioned the landscape of the American West. One, glorying in the land and emphasizing descriptive specificity, is rooted in government-survey pictures of the 1870s; the other, wry and admonishing, arrived a century later under the banner of New Topographics. But outside its well-documented urban areas, how have American photographers framed the country’s eastern half? Eliot Porter rendered Maine foliage in Technicolor, Paul Strand spent time in New England, and Joel Meyerowitz caught seaside towns based in rosy Cape light, but prevailing themes can be difficult to discern. In these parts, painters have had the upper hand, from bucolic Hudson River School scenes to Winslow Homer’s churning waves to the bonhomie captured by Porter’s brother Fairfield. It makes sense, then, that James Welling, a photographer born in Connecticut but long identified with the Los Angeles he calls home, has used a painter as a route back to the landscape of his childhood.
As do many exhibitions of Welling’s photos, this show blithely intermixed visually dissimilar works, and here there were two abstract series—one of ink-jet prints, one of gelatin silver prints derived from photograms—that evoker painterliness in a general way. The stronger works, which comprised the majority of the show, were exceedingly specific and representational, engaging directly with the life and legacy of Andrew Wyeth. Several years ago, Welling began visiting Wyeth’s homes and studios in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Cushing, Maine. One of his aims was to re-create some of Wyeth’s most well-known canvases, including the iconic Christina’s World, 1948, The Revenant, 1949, and End of Olsons, made in 1969, just after Christina’s death. Varying in their fidelity to the original paintings, the resultant images show the ways in which the landscape has changed since Wyeth painted it and depict these places in different seasons, encouraging viewers to meditate on the passage of time. So, too, does Welling’s use of a mechanical eye highlight the imaginativeness of Wyeth’s “conservative” realism; the painter rendered domestic details in his own idiosyncratic way.
In addition to his photographic reconstructions of Wyeth’s famous vistas, Welling attempts to show what Wyeth saw from day to day. Many of these photographs offer close-up views of the buildings’ interiors: a weathered door at the Olson house; a dark-painted cabinet hanging high on a wall; Wyeth’s easel, studio mirror, and collection of dry pigments. Desiccated northern light, somehow at once pale and bright, is a leitmotif, and is what makes Glass House, 2010, my favorite photograph in the show. Interior and exterior merge: Three windows spanning the corner of an upper story are caked with a thin layer of frost that matches the whitewashed walls and window frames. Yet for all its confusion of space, Glass House also offers comforting protection from the elements. Perhaps such shelter defines one iconic vision of the New England landscape.
Those familiar with Welling’s work will recognize the title of this photograph as the site of another recent series: the iconic modernist retreat designed by Philip Johnson as his own Connecticut home and completed, a year after Christina’s World, 1949. In Johnson’s building, too, windows both admit nature (visually) and keep it at bay. For his “Glass House” works, 2006–2009, exhibited at this gallery in 2010, Welling used filters to metaphorically transform the expansive plate glass into a prism throwing psychedelic colors onto Johnson’s immaculate gardens.