Last week, when I spoke to James Welling at David Zwirner, the gallery was de-installing its De Wain Valentine show. Whirring drills threatened to upstage the soft-spoken photographer, who discussed his show at The Brandywine River Museum of Art, “Things Beyond Resemblance.” He looked down as we spoke, his moss-colored glasses and wavy gray hair pointed toward a table between us, so he barely noticed when two men walked by, carrying a six-foot-tall Yayoi Kusama painting.
As Welling sipped a coffee, we discussed his series of photographs based on paintings by Andrew Wyeth, who Welling considers his first and greatest influence. For five years, Welling has photographed objects and places around the American modernist’s studio. Though the photographs have been exhibited before, “Things Beyond Resemblance” is the most complete show of the “Wyeth” works. It also features Welling’s first sculptures in decades—“Gradients,” a series of blurry color strips that dot the Brandywine’s 200-acre campus.
Our conversation follows below. It has been lightly edited.
ARTnews: You mentioned in an interview that, when you saw a Wyeth painting for the first time at age 15, it created this new way of seeing. What changed for you in that moment?
James Welling: I remember seeing a van Gogh show at the Guggenheim. This was before the Wyeth experience. My parents took me, and it was very exciting. I was about 12 years old. When I saw Wyeth for the first time, it was as if he was painting in my backyard. My parents had just moved to a suburban house in newly constructed suburbs in southern Connecticut, and it was if Wyeth was painting my life, rather than, say, van Gogh, which I couldn’t really relate to. So Wyeth introduced me to the subject at hand, out the backdoor, with his depictions of rural Pennsylvania.
What kind of emotional reaction did you have when you were looking at Wyeth’s pictures and doing the series?
Well, it may have started out with an emotional trigger, but I was very analytical about how I worked on it. It was as much an assignment as it was a discovery. I assigned myself to this project and was really open to whatever came out of it, especially things that really didn’t have much to do with Wyeth. So I was interested in things that would pop up, that would be irrelevant to the project as well. I wanted to be sensitive to making this work about Wyeth, but also whatever I found on the way.
Did it go the way you expected it to?
There are a number of non-Wyeth pictures in the show, and those are actually the ones I really enjoy looking at—the ones that have nothing to do with his work. They’re just in the same zone.
It’s interesting to me that there’s no humans in the series for most of it, even though there’s a very human presence implied. It’s this very somber, moving effect. Were you thinking about that at all while you were working?
I think because I worked for so long in this five-year process of fine-tuning and reprinting and changing the color—I think, inevitably, that there’s going to be some kind of presence incorporated in the pictures. I had a few fleeting ideas about incorporating figures into the work, but that would’ve been much more challenging. I don’t do a lot of portraits. To invoke the human subject in those pictures would’ve been, you know, probably beyond what I could’ve accomplished. Once I was going in the direction that I’d started, with, as you point out, these absent pictures, but still with keeping the human subject very close by, I decided to just keep going with that.
What would you do in the fine-tuning process? How would you manipulate these photographs?
I’d just use the standard tools that any photographer uses to take a digital file from a digital camera and make it into a convincing, naturalistic picture. There’s a whole range of things you have to do because you just don’t print straight from the camera. Around the same time, I was experimenting with this tool called gradient mapping, where you map colors onto the gray scale parts of the picture, so some of the photographs have gradient maps where I’m working with a color. Others have hue and saturation layers. It’s basic Photoshop adjustments. I really wouldn’t call them “manipulations,” more like “adjustments.” And then I just kept going with some of the pictures—maybe some people would say too far.
I’m interested in the gradient mapping because there are the similarly titled “Gradient” sculptures in “Things Beyond Resemblance.” What led you to making a sculpture? I know you had done sculptures in the past.
This project, the “Gradients,” relates to some of my earlier photograms from the mid-’80s to ’90s, which are called “Degradés.” Interestingly, I came to them from a different place. It comes from these gradient maps that I was creating for some of the photographs. In making these gradients, I work with a different photographic process, or inkjet process, which is called dye-sublimation. In dye- sublimation, the dyes are pressed into a very smooth, glossy support.
In my photo classes at UCLA, I’ve been thinking a lot about and talking a lot about, in my critiques, this fascination with glossiness, with Retina screens, with glossy prints, with the surface of iPhones—this whole aesthetic of glossy, shiny surfaces, which is kind of antithetical to Wyeth in an interesting way. His paintings [have] a sort of matte—lustrous, but not shiny. In the “Gradients,” I was able to create something at a high gloss, which articulates this fascination today with shininess, newness, but still within the landscape of Wyeth. It’s jarring, almost, the difference of these “Gradients” and the surface of a painting, for instance.
I wanted to ask a little about the titles of the photographs. They’re sometimes very literal and other times very poetic.
They seem to suggest themselves. Some are Wyeth titles, others are just descriptions.
There’s one called Glass House.
Oh, that refers to a Wyeth painting. That was actually one of the things that cemented the project—a Wyeth painting called Glass House. It’s of a cupola, of a white space. It was actually a portrait of the woman who owned the house.
It’s just interesting that it has an unexpected connection with another series you did about Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Was that on purpose?
Oh, of course. It was a gift, Wyeth’s title. It was a segue between Wyeth and my photographs.
So do you think there are any similarities between that series and the Wyeth one?
I purposefully wanted to invert the “Glass House” works. As I was winding down the “Glass House” photographs, I was trying to figure out what would be an antidote to it. Interestingly, Wyeth became a corrective or antidote to the colors of the “Glass House” [works], or the artifice. I was interested in something extremely naturalistic as a kind of tonic to the Glass House.
How many years did you spend doing the “Wyeth” series?
Five. I actually made some new photographs three weeks ago.
Did you have a different idea, going back and doing the newer photographs?
No, last year I gave a talk in Canada, at the National Gallery, and I talked about Wyeth’s relationship to birds because birds appear in many of his paintings. They have a poetic resonance with Wyeth. I was able to make two photographs—one of a flock of birds, and also a second picture of a feather. I’ve incorporated those into the show.
Now that the “Wyeth” series is, more or less, finished, what do you think about it, looking back on it?
You know, there’s a lot of explaining I’ve got to do with this work, and I wish that I could just extract myself from it, and you could just look at the pictures. It just seems that today museums have lots of explanations. Brandywine is a great museum, and they have a big education component because a lot of the viewers are there to see Wyeth, not to see the contemporary art. There’s a big push to explain my work, and it’s just too bad. Just experience it.