My mind is bent to tell of bodies changed into new forms.
David Zwirner is pleased 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 aluminium foil. This early work signalled 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 colour in 2004 for 'Flowers', a series of photograms (cameraless photographs) that he created until 2017. The first 'Flowers' were made in a colour darkroom by layering brightly coloured gels above a black-and-white negative of a flower to produce irregular fields of vibrant colour. In 2014, Welling started working with flower imagery on the computer using the red, green, and blue colour 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 colour 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 colours 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 emphasises 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.
Press release courtesy David Zwirner.