Welling's Somber Shadows

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2000

I WAS more than halfway through the retrospective of James Welling's photographs at the Baltimore Museum of Art before it occurred to me that, except for the lone museum guard stationed at the entrance, I was the only one in the gallery. Just then, someone else barged in asking for directions, effectively shattering the delicate silence that emanates from Welling's work.

The momentary intrusion felt like a violation, as though visitors should somehow be allowed to move through the exhibition one at a time. I'm sure museum management wouldn't agree with me on this, but it felt as if it was my turn to look.

What is it about "James Welling: Photographs 1974-1999" that can make a viewer feel entitled to some solitude?

Partly, but most superficially, it's the low light levels in the rooms themselves. In order to protect the light-sensitive prints from damage, the space has been imbued with the twilit mood of a library--or Vespers. The ambiance is reflective, prayerful, reverential and slightly academic.

More importantly, it's the 128 pictures themselves. They are, with rare exceptions, unpopulated ghost towns. I mean that figuratively, of course, since except for a shot or two of Meriden, Conn., or a Cumberland, Md., bridge, they aren't literally towns at all. There's a white-smocked quality control worker standing in a lace factory in Calais, France, a train engineer dimly visible behind the windshield of a locomotive in Upstate New York, the indistinct outline of an office worker or two glimpsed through the glass of one of the upper windows of the Allegheny County Courthouse. Otherwise, Welling prefers empty branches against the backdrop of a winter sky to people, night scenes to daylight and abstracted still lifes to portraiture.

In addition to that, there is an eerie stillness here, a sense of someone's breath being held (the photographer's, perhaps, as he waits for the actors to leave the stage, but also the viewer's). In a series like his "Railroad Photographs, 1987-94" (which evoke the pictures of O. Winston Link), Welling shoots trains, train tracks and train yards, yet despite the fact that you can occasionally make out a puff of engine smoke or the aforementioned engineer lurking in the shadows, there's a frozen, almost lifeless quality to his portraits of these "iron horses." Their power is formal, not dynamic. Inspired not by trains but by postcards of trains, Welling is more interested in the photograph itself than in the thing being photographed.

The same holds true of all of Welling's pictures, whose overwhelmingly dark tonalities pay homage to the inspiration of Paul Strand, along with the earlier artist's emphasis on composition over subject matter. Even in his "Light Sources, 1992-98" series, Welling exhibits no more fascination with the sun (except as a source of illumination) than with a glowing light bulb (or an array of light bulbs, as with the case of the nearly abstract "Brussels, 1996").

Look at his series of "Architectural Photographs: Buildings by H.H. Richardson (1838-86), 1988-94." Certainly, these handsome photos of old public and private buildings designed by Henry Hobson Richardson betray--as does much of Welling's art--a nostalgia for a bygone century, but in case you need proof that the issues Welling has chosen to deal with are photographic rather than architectural or historical, take a gander at "MacVeagh House, Chicago, IL, 1885-87, Demolished in 1922." Obviously, he couldn't have taken a photo of a razed building, now could he? This photo--one of my favorites for its weirdly disorienting self-referentiality--is actually a photo of a photo of a razed building, putting Welling in the same class as such contemporary meta-photographers as Sarah Charlesworth, whose beautiful detachment (her pictures, like Welling's, are all about picturemaking) was showcased a few years ago to the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Unlike Charlesworth, however, Welling doesn't feel ironic. He doesn't put quotation marks around his obvious affection for photography or for the purity of picture taking. Whether he's shooting white flakes of broken phyllo pastry dough against velvet drapes or light glistening off glass and what looks like boggy soil, his work sings in a voice that is lush, sensual and unabashedly expressionist.

His photographs are happy to be just that--photographs. Except that "happy" doesn't seem the right word when it comes to these melancholy images. A cool and lovely sadness pervades each piece, as though mourning its own attempts to fix the ephemeral.

Whether Welling is taking a tiny Polaroid of a half-filled shampoo bottle on the ledge of his shower stall (1976) or shooting a close-up of a page from his great-great-grandparents' 1840s honeymoon diaries (1977-86) or making abstract, Franz Kline-like photograms that resemble scaffolding silhouetted against a white, white sky (1998 and 1999), there is an undeniable love for the potency of this quintessentially 19th-century medium: not just its history but its ability to carry those who respect its strengths--and its limitations--into the next century.

Smartly organized by the Wexner Center of the Arts at Ohio State University, "James Welling: Photographs 1974-1999" makes its sole East Coast appearance in Baltimore, before moving to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. It's worth a trip north.

JAMES WELLING: PHOTOGRAPHS 1974-1999 -- Through Dec. 10 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st Streets, Baltimore. 410/396-7100. Web site: www.artbma.org. Open 11 to 5 Wednesdays through Fridays; first Thursday of every month until 9; Saturdays and Sundays 11 to 6. $6, $4 seniors and students (18 and under free). Free on Thursdays.

Public programs associated with the exhibition include:

Oct. 28, Nov. 18 and Dec. 10 at 2 -- Museum docents lead a tour of the exhibition.

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