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James Welling’s images combine painting, sculpture, photography

  • University Museum of Contemporary Art director Loretta Yarlow looks at vertical pairings of silver gelatin prints in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    University Museum of Contemporary Art director Loretta Yarlow looks at vertical pairings of silver gelatin prints in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • "Oak, Winter 1966/1967 West Simsbury, CT", a work in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING<br/>

    "Oak, Winter 1966/1967 West Simsbury, CT", a work in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.
    KEVIN GUTTING
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • "Brewer Cottage, Knollwood Beach, Old Saybrook, CT", a photograph in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    "Brewer Cottage, Knollwood Beach, Old Saybrook, CT", a photograph in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • "B15 2-19I", a gelatin silver print in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING<br/>

    "B15 2-19I", a gelatin silver print in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.
    KEVIN GUTTING
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • "Self Portrait, March 1971 on Harvest Hill, West Simsbury", a photograph in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING<br/>

    "Self Portrait, March 1971 on Harvest Hill, West Simsbury", a photograph in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.
    KEVIN GUTTING
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • A photograph from the "Glass House" series in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    A photograph from the "Glass House" series in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • "December 26, 1968", left, a watercolor on paper, and "Walk on Harvest Hill, West Simsbury, CT", right, a Super 8 film are in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING<br/>

    "December 26, 1968", left, a watercolor on paper, and "Walk on Harvest Hill, West Simsbury, CT", right, a Super 8 film are in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.
    KEVIN GUTTING
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Eva Fierst, left, education curator at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, and UMCA director Loretta Yarlow pose with works in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. At right is a watercolor on paper "Oak, Winter 1966/1967 West Simsbury, CT" and projected behind them is a Super 8 film, "Sculpture".<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Eva Fierst, left, education curator at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, and UMCA director Loretta Yarlow pose with works in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. At right is a watercolor on paper "Oak, Winter 1966/1967 West Simsbury, CT" and projected behind them is a Super 8 film, "Sculpture".
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • University Museum of Contemporary Art director Loretta Yarlow looks at vertical pairings of silver gelatin prints in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • "Oak, Winter 1966/1967 West Simsbury, CT", a work in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING<br/>
  • "Brewer Cottage, Knollwood Beach, Old Saybrook, CT", a photograph in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • "B15 2-19I", a gelatin silver print in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING<br/>
  • "Self Portrait, March 1971 on Harvest Hill, West Simsbury", a photograph in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING<br/>
  • A photograph from the "Glass House" series in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • "December 26, 1968", left, a watercolor on paper, and "Walk on Harvest Hill, West Simsbury, CT", right, a Super 8 film are in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING<br/>
  • Eva Fierst, left, education curator at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, and UMCA director Loretta Yarlow pose with works in the exhibition "James Welling: Place/Life Studies" on view through May 5 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. At right is a watercolor on paper "Oak, Winter 1966/1967 West Simsbury, CT" and projected behind them is a Super 8 film, "Sculpture".<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

Some artists develop a style or look, and stick with it. But photographer James Welling has long drawn on different mediums and staked out his own vision that, as one reviewer sees it, has led to “beautiful and uncompromising photographs ... he operates in the hybrid ground between painting, sculpture and traditional photography.”

Now a retrospective of this New England artist’s work is being featured at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, highlighting the diversity of Welling’s creations — from traditional landscapes to miniature portraits, from vibrant color to black and white, from representation to abstraction.

“I’ve followed his career for a long time,” said Loretta Yarlow, director of the University Museum of Contemporary Arts (UMCA), where Welling’s work is on display through May 5. “Jim has been experimenting all his life. I really think it’s his incredible wide range of materials and styles ... that characterize his 30-plus years as an artist.”

The UMCA exhibit, called “Open Space,” also includes paintings and video, and perhaps more importantly, it’s dedicated entirely to work that Welling has done in New England. Welling, a Connecticut native who teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles, still returns regularly to photograph in New England, Yarlow says.

“It’s really a thrill to have his work here and to be able to work firsthand with him to set up the exhibit,” she added.

First, a painter

Welling, who was born in 1951, grew up in the town of West Simsbury, Conn., west of Hartford, and early on developed an interest in documenting landscape, first as a painter and later as a photographer. Yarlow says one of the appeals of the UMCA exhibit is that it features some of his earliest and latest work together for the first time. The show includes watercolor paintings of land surrounding Welling’s family home that have never been publicly displayed before.

Eva Fierst, UMCA’s education coordinator, notes that Welling is a self-taught photographer whose first forays behind the lens came after he had developed as a painter, and that painting continues to influence his work, though it’s not something he does anymore.

“There’s an emotive quality to his images, rather than the documentary effect that a lot of people associate with photographs,” Fierst said. “And sometimes he uses just a riot of colors — they’re extraordinary.”

The UMCA show places Welling’s color images in a separate area from the black-and-white ones, which accentuates the palette of the former work. Displayed here are several pictures from a detailed study Welling made from 2006 to 2009 of architect Philip Johnson’s glass house in New Canaan, Conn.

Making use of different filters, multiple angles, shadow and reflection, Welling presented the glass house and other parts of the 47-acre property in myriad ways. One photo shows the sun sparkling just above the roof of the house; molten gold envelops the glass below, while trees and a deep-blue sky are reflected on the glass just to the side.

Another image is bathed in murky green light, the view focused on a stone wall and high grass in the foreground, and trees in the background. The house itself, only partly visible behind the wall, looks small and insubstantial.

“That’s another of his trademarks — he really likes to play with scale and create uncertainty,” Yarlow said.

Videos that Welling made of the house, shot from inside and out, as well as around Johnson’s property, and during different seasons, are part of the exhibit and also reflect his interest in color and changing perspective, said Fierst.

“His view is that the camera is not always the truth teller. You have to question things all the time ... what you perceive is (the artist’s) vision, but it’s not necessarily the universal truth.”

Realism vs. abstraction

Welling, whose work has been exhibited across the United States and overseas, has long been a critics’ favorite. Yarlow says he’s considered a vital part of the “Pictures Generation,” a group of photographers who emerged in the 1970s and whose work reflects growing up in the consumer and media-saturated age of post-World War II America.

But it’s only relatively recently that Welling has begun to attract wider notice, Yarlow says. He’s had shows in New York City in the past several years, and a large-edition book on his work has recently been published.

“He doesn’t have a signature style — he doesn’t have a sound bite,” Yarlow said. “But he’s been a very big influence on other artists.”

In his black-and-white photographs, Welling also explores perspective and the contrast between realism and abstraction. He regularly works in series, Fierst says, doing multiple photographs of an object or setting. One such collection, from 1980, is of mottled and rugged surfaces that seem mysterious; some suggest dense foliage, such as a hedgerow, or perhaps a lava flow. Actually, these small photos are close-ups of crumpled tinfoil.

Welling has also made a name for himself over the years with photograms, an image made without a camera by placing objects on light-sensitive paper and exposing them to light. One of Welling’s series, “Frolic Architecture,” which he created in 2012 for a volume of verse by poet Susan Howe, consists of sheets of mylar that the artist painted with watercolors, then folded and photographed. The result: looping abstract patterns and shapes that defy categorization.

But, Fierst says, Welling also has a keen interest in nature and urban landscapes. He’s made a long study of Connecticut railways and related structures such as bridges, and the UMCA includes selected back-and-white photographs that evoke different sides of his native state — a ruined bridge, solitary trees, a snow-speckled field, a barn and a dusty dirt path beneath a summer sky.

“He does some very interesting juxtapositions of nature and man-made objects in nature,” Fierst said.

Though Yarlow says Welling’s work has never been exhibited at UMass before, he has a connection to the Valley: He photographed the cover art for the 1985 album “Bad Moon Rising” by Sonic Youth, the alternative rock band whose founding members, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, moved to Northampton in the late 1990s.

Welling’s continued explorations of photography and his search for different images make him a role model for new artists, Yarlow says. Even as others search for an “iconic style, she added, “Welling is a refreshing reminder that artists need to continue to try out the ‘new.’ ”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

James Welling’s “Open Space” will be on view at UMCA through May 5. Museum hours are Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

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