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James Welling ‘paints’ with photographic chemicals

James Welling ‘paints’ with photographic chemicals

October 28, 2016 // by Paul Karabinis

This is the text of one of the audio guides Paul Karabinis wrote and recorded for "Retro-spective: Analog Photography in a Digital World." Listen to the recording here.

James Welling Chemical b
© James Welling, Chemical, 2015. Unique chemigram, 9 . x 8 . inches. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York / London.

James Welling has explored painting, sculpture, performance, and installation for more than three decades but is best known for his conceptual approaches to picture-making with light-sensitive materials. The photographs in his Chemical series are made without a camera, but they are not photograms, as they are not made by laying objects or modulating light on a light-sensitive surface. Nor are they pictures made by dipping, pouring, and pooling developing chemistry on photographic paper, as in the work of Alison Rossiter.

Welling's photographs are created in the ambient light of his studio with black and white photographic chemistry applied by brush to chromogenic or color photographic paper. The result is a series of nonrepresentational abstractions that hover between photography and painting.

Welling's photographs are the result of a performance that combines painterly gestures and chemistry as it effects the sensitized paper. The use of developer begins image production and fixer works to stop it. Used together, each resists the other. The process, however, is not quite like painting: unlike paint, the chemistry is essentially colorless and the tonal effects are not visible until the chemistry begins to act on the surface of the paper. Welling's gestures and chemical interventions, while directed, are not completely controllable or predictable. His marks continue to change until the paper has been placed in a fixing bath, which makes the image permanent.

Welling's chemical prints are not abstractions but nonobjective pictures with little or no reference to the world or to traditional methods or sensibilities that inform photographic abstraction produced with camera and lens.

James Welling in His Studio
Courtesy of James Welling studio.

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