AMHERST — Interstices interest James Welling. What helps define his art are those hard-to-define spaces where things meet: visually, formally, even geographically.
Actually, the organizing principle of “James Welling: Open Space” superimposes that last interstitial interest. The show runs at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, through May 5.
Whereas the figurative open space is conceptual (Welling’s unwillingness to be limited by standard artistic categories), the literal open space is regional. The watercolors, videos, and (mostly) photographs that make up the show — 50 pieces in all — derive from projects Welling has done in New England between 1970 and 2010.
Connecticut predominates. Welling was born in Hartford, in 1951. Really, is there anywhere in North America more interstitial than Connecticut: that scattering of small cities, connected by a fabric of suburbs, making for a kind of sectional no-man’s-land between Massachusetts and New York.
Even when dealing with a Connecticut landmark, Philip Johnson’s Glass House, in New Canaan, Welling has a way of making it seem indeterminate. He’s spoken of how the house became for him “a laboratory for ideas about transparency, reflectivity, and color.” And in the three large color photographs and two videos showing the house, it seems less like a specific structure — let alone one that’s readily identifiable — than it does a reverie of one (or even a nightmare, considering the blasted colors he can use). As so often in Welling’s art, there’s a sense of dislocation. The fame, and specificity, of the building simply underscore that sense. We get Philip Johnson’s house, but not Philip Johnson.
The works are depopulated. Other than a very early photographic self-portrait, no person is seen. Even a photographic series inspired by Welling’s great-great-grandparents’ diary is oddly impersonal. He presents images of the diary text and evocative items (a leaf, a landscape). Some of the pictures from other series (“Drapes,” “Aluminum Foil,” the marvelously titled “Frolic Architecture”) are abstractions or close to it. The diary pictures aren’t so much abstract as abstracted.
A set of handsome photographs of landscapes and man-made structures taken in the late ’90s and early ’00s uses this impersonality to good effect. The railroad building in “Devon Tower, Milford, CT,” for example, seems to stand outside of time. Welling, who has spoken of his “desire to make photographs which were not strictly bound by present time,” achieves that effect.
For better or worse, though, time, like light, is one of the absolutes of circumstance that photography has to deal with. It’s part of the out-there that creates the photographic in-there the frame defines. Read with that in mind, there’s a passage in Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March” that can be taken as both photographic and exhortation. “External life being so mighty,” Bellow has Augie think, “the instruments so huge and terrible, the performances so great, the thoughts so great and threatening, you produce someone who can stand before it. You invent a man who can stand before the mighty appearances.” If that man, or woman, is a photographer, the choice can also be made to respond to those appearances indirectly: as idea more than act. That’s Welling’s way.
Welling belongs to the artistic group that has come to be known as the Pictures Generation. Other members include Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, David Salle. (Welling and Salle, who both studied with John Baldessari at CalArts, once shared studio space.) These highly diverse contemporaries first came to prominence in the late ’70s and early ’80s. What they share is a tendency to merge and reshape multiple media, with photography functioning as a kind of ground bass for their various themes and variations. The Pictures Generation could as easily be called (you saw this coming, right?) the Interstices Generation.
Self-taught as a photographer, Welling began as a painter. The show has its chronological beginning with nine of his watercolors. They’re handsome and capable. One can discern a young artist who’s absorbed Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth and, perhaps, Marsden Hartley and (a denser) Milton Avery. The pictures have personality but not yet a sensibility. The later work reverses those conditions. Sensibility without personality might not be a bad working definition of Postmodernism.