An Intimate World: Welling’s Wyeth
Art Review By Sarah Kate Jorgensen
A full moon obscured by clouds, an isolated farmhouse, light through a dormer window; a wall cast in shadows; the yellowing and reddening of the leaves; a frosted window; wallpaper peeling off the kitchen wall; a cabinet of spices, windows leading to mud rooms and doors outside, thresholds between the inside and out, a stately tree; textured surfaces (moss resurfaces the wall; plaster covers rocks; mulch stretches across the ground): James Welling’s exhibition of thirty-three photographs at David Zwirner, entitled “Overflow”, depicts coastal Maine and rural Pennsylvania with an eye for the intimate, the psychological, and the symbolic.
Welling approaches the familiar with a keen attention to the presence of light. Views are partial- a darkened corner, a sun drenched door, a back stairwell. Created using a large format camera and digital manipulation, these photographs are mysterious, theatrical, evocative, and gracious. Welling says that his compositions and choices of subjects are his way of “engaging in a discourse with the world.” This implies an exchange with places, things, and experiences. In the exhibited works, he is engaging with the world of the painter Andrew Wyeth, with Wyeth’s symbolism, and with the artistic process itself.
Zwirner’s cathedral- like galleries offer an impressive presentation of this encounter between the photographer and the artist. Both artists’ works capture the subjects they are drawn to- the local, the familiar, and at times, the ugly. Wyeth enjoyed the open spaces of the outdoors but it was never the open fields or seashore that Wyeth painted. He preferred instead to depict places of quiet drama: the stones of the graveyard, the emptiness of country churches, and the dark interior of the springhouse. Welling matches this sentiment in his evocation of the visual drama of the everyday. He also takes the themes of some of Wyeth’s’ work and expands them. At other times, distills them.
Of his portraits of Christina Olson, his neighbor stricken with polio, and images of her family’s farmhouse, Wyeth said, “Christina Olson IS the Olson farm.” That statement conveys the symbolic overtones in Wyeth’s subjects, and reveals Wyeth’s use of physical structures as stand ins for their occupants and for psychological states. Welling reiterates this when he photographs two doors in the Olson house and entitles the picture “Alvaro and Christina” (2010). In another image of the Olson farm, Welling removes the trees in the background to further isolate the house.
Although Wyeth was avowedly American in his work, it is useful to recall some European artists when looking at Wyeth’s oeuvre. His repeated use of doorways evokes Northern Renaissance depictions of the Virgin Mary in which windows are liminal structures- symbolic boundaries that separate the realms of the earthly and the divine. Welling picks up on this device in “Door, Olson House” (2010) and “Studio Door” (2011) In the Welling’s “Glass House”, Vermeer’s light bathed interiors are transported into Wyeth’s world. Welling strips place to the routine, but the unseen and metaphoric tone of Wyeth’s world is always present.
The images by each artist entitled “Ground Hog Day” deal again with spiritual and mundane themes. In Wyeth’s “Ground Hog Day” (1959), sunlight bathes a table setting, while the rest of the house remains in shadow. Through the window, the first frost, marking the change of seasons, is apparent on the recently felled tree that now provides wood to warm the domestic spaces (its dead state also serves as a metaphor for the cycle of life). The farmer Karl Kruener’s lunch is about to be served, as it always is, at noon. Wyeth renders a spare table setting. Outside there is the violence of axing the tree and death, inside a sacramental order of a ritualized meal and the light of an austere divinity. The sunlit window serves as symbolic and physical framework to which Wyeth gradually added narrative elements. In his rendition of “Ground Hog Day” (2010), Welling distills this image to just the place setting. In doing so, he transforms the narrative. In Welling’s rendition, the framing of the setting is minimalized and the aperture shrunk to exclude a part of Wyeth’s narrative that establishes the dichotomies of inside/outside, violence/life, and isolation/belonging. His image takes on the minimal modernism of Edward Weston’s compositions from the 1930’s that were marked by their isolation of single objects.
Other photographs by Welling depart from a visual resemblance to the painter’s work to look at the artistic process. Just as Welling takes inspiration from Wyeth, Wyeth’s devotion to the work of other artists’ is revealed by books on a shelf in Wyeth’s studio: 9 volumes on Albrecht Durer, 4 on Winslow Homer, 4 on Edward Hopper (“Durer”, 2012). Other images of more recent historic relics, such as one of paint peeling in a seventies era kitchen in “Anna’s Kitchen” (2010) and another of the artist’s easel (“Easel”, 2011) evoke issues concerning the ironies of aging and creative renewal against the current of time.
In “Overflow” we see Wyeth through Welling. The images can be construed as works of modernism fit into a hardscrabble, if not bleak, New England picture plane. They are mysterious compositions with magical, psychological overtones. They are meditations on the intense relationship between painting and photography. They leave you breathless.