– Spring 2013

James Welling: The Mind on Fire

Tags: Dan Graham, James Welling, Jeff Wall

This conversation took place during ‘James Welling: The Mind on Fire’, an exhibition at MK Gallery, Milton Keynes that closely examined the artist’s formative years.1 It is clear, in retrospect, how this period provided the genesis of so many of the themes and series that Welling has been pursuing ever since. For example, the Los Angeles Architecture photographs (1976—78) prioritise a theatrical play of light and shadow over architecture itself in a way that foreshadows the Glass House series (2006—09). Another recent series of photographs related to the painter Andrew Wyeth (Wyeth, 2010—ongoing) is directly connected to Welling’s early days as a watercolourist attempting to capture transitory light effects and cloud formations. Somewhat surprisingly, landscape remains a constant throughout Welling’s career, from the ‘phyllo dough drapes’ of the 1980s, which echo Wyeth’s paintings of melting snow, to the Degradés (1986—2006), with their uncompromising fixation on the horizon. The relationship between painting and photography is another constant in Welling’s work: his Fluid Dynamics (2009—12) recall his early struggles with watercolour, as well as the bacterial, fractal qualities of his early collages and the disorienting scale and perspective of the seminal Aluminum Foil series (1980—81). At the same time, Welling has never wavered in his curiosity in the photographic medium, persistently testing the limits and capabilities of his apparatus.

Anthony Spira: Your exhibition at MK Gallery, ‘The Mind on Fire’, re-creates six different shows or parts of shows from New York in the early to mid-1980s, and includes ephemera from the 1970s and 80s, such as notes, drawings, source material, props, records and books, etc. Could you explain where the title comes from?

James Welling: ‘The Mind on

  1. ‘James Welling: The Mind on Fire’ took place at MK Gallery, Milton Keynes from 14 September to 25 November 2012. The exhibition is presented in partnership with and will be displayed at Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela from 21 March to 16 June 2013 and at Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver from 15 November 2013 to 19 January 2014.

  2. James Welling, ‘Statements, Drafts, Writings and Notes, 1982—88’, unpublished, assembled 2008, archived at the Joyce F. Menschel Photography Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

  3. ‘Jesus in the Snow’ is an optical illusion said to have been taken by a Chinese photographer, who took a picture of melting snow against black earth.

  4. Tamie Boley, ‘Interview with James Welling’, in J. Welling, ‘Statements, Drafts, Writings and Notes’, op. cit.

  5. J. Welling, ‘Statements, Drafts, Writings and Notes’, op. cit.