One should not mistake James Welling’s Glass House as an elegy for modernism or its architecture. Though the exhibition takes Philip Johnson’s iconic modernist structure as its subject, one would venture down the wrong (and most obvious) rabbit hole if they were to consider the movement’s ineluctable legacy. Rather, here Welling continues his infamous neo-formalist photographic venture using Johnson’s glass house as a canvas for experimentation in light, transparency and colour. Distractions aside—including the confusing, major omission of modernist ideology as fodder juxtaposed with the major presence of a modernist icon—Glass House is a virtuoso photographic investigation into perceptual phenomena, simply put.
Welling was invited to shoot Johnson’s Glass House by New York Magazine photography director Jody Quon after she saw his earlier, very similar images of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, located in Plano, Illinois. The artist visited Johnson’s 47-acre estate in New Canaan, Connecticut seven times between 2006 and 2009, photographing the Glass House, and including Johnson’s burgeoning art and furniture collections. Completed in 1949, the modular 1728 square foot glass box is accompanied by 14 other buildings on the compound, three of which (the Brick Guest House, 1949, the Lake Pavilion, 1962 and the Lincoln Kirstein sculpture, 1985) make appearances in the artist’s experimentations. Although Welling has asserted that Philip’s house wasn’t necessarily revolutionary architecturally, the artist was most interested in the building’s unique construction of glass and conceptual conceit.
Appearing at once dated and contemporaneous, Welling’s photographs are shot digitally with handheld filters of varying hues and effects. He uses six colours representing the RGB and CMYK spectrums: red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, and yellow, as well as a diffraction filter, which creates refracting sunspots and bursts of light. Most of the photographic manipulations occur at the moment of ‘exposure’ (as if such a thing exists digitally), with minimal digital postproduction involved. Paradoxically, Welling replicates phenomena unique to both analog and digital photography. The artist ‘cheats’ by digitally polarising (or inverting in Photoshop) a serene if not also saturnine worm’s eye view of the Glass House. Constellations of mirrors and glass set up during Welling’s shoots create the illusion of a filmic double exposure. The resulting images are atmospheric painterly scenes of the Connecticut landscape amid alternating seasons, bathed in hyper-saturated colour, at times ghostly and emotionally charged. Verdant trees transform to daffodil yellow, snow melts to incarnadine, and aged concrete arches are drenched in somber cornflower blue. Inside the Glass House, Mies van der Rohe chairs are striped with Crayola rainbows while the branches of dead trees reflect upon vacant windows.
Welling’s work is nothing if not poetic, and undeniably a pleasure to look at. To call his photographs beautiful would be an understatement. But what comes from this looking? If one were to pry beyond Welling’s medium-based tediums, any number of significant concepts could be excavated. For one, his imposition of fanciful abstraction and colourful embellishments could register at odds with the no-frills rationality of modernist architecture. Could he be challenging Johnson’s conceptual conceit? Or conversely, perhaps Welling continues the investigation of transparency and the dialectics of interiority and exteriority propagated by modernist architects. Somewhat humorously, the combination of modernist iconography with dramatised, artificial lens flares appear as if spiritual transcendence is occurring on the very picture plane. I wonder if Philip Johnson collected Rothko.
Though Welling’s images appear somewhat atavistic vis-à-vis its mid-20th century buildings and technicolour hues, they also resound exceedingly of the late noughties. Undoubtedly medium-specific investigations in photography have been fashionable for quite some time, for which Welling has been a major player. But here the artist’s adoption of digital technologies in creating atmospheric abstractions seems to be most profound. Arguably, the most intentional aspect of the ‘Glass House’ worthy of our attention may be Welling’s use of computing devices as painterly instruments. Thus far, who has achieved such effects? Perhaps only a smattering of young net-based artists. Such is the nature of the computer to reject the physical painting practice of layering and accumulation. The screen, or picture plane cannot be treated with a grisaille, for example, as when data is erased one begins again completely anew. The digitisation of painting techniques leaves a canon of content waiting for its tinkering, upon which Welling has scratched the surface.
While Welling’s exhibition excels in ways his practice has—in creating beautiful exercises ruminating on the nature of perception and photographic processes—the artist also leaves a few unfortunate conceptual loose ends in an otherwise irresistible show.
Karen Archey is a critic based in New York