Signed in as:
Signed in as:
Artist James Welling has been making photographs on a trajectory of it own for the last twenty-five years. Showing early on with Pictures artists in New York and then moving to Los Angels in the 90’s to head UCLA”s photo department, where he talks with Jay Batlle about the difference between New York and Los Angeles, cooking and how much the Artworld has changed.
JB: When did you first start making photographs?
JW: Well you know, everyone takes pictures but I started to take myself serious as a photographer in 1972. It was my third year in college.
JB: I remember you made a comparison early on between cooking and photography.
Well, I had a number of false starts, where I would make some photographers and have someone else process them. It wasn’t until a few years later around1975 when I was working as a short order cook that I really began to get interested in photography. The thing is that cooking and photography share is that you both wear an apron.
JB: Right, I know that from cooking myself.
JW: And there is a lot of stainless steel involved, also the sequence from steam tables to the grill, the broiler, and to putting out the order out for the waitress or waiters. You know it’s similar with photography, because you start with developer, end up at the print washer and finish with the dry mount press.
JB: Were you thinking about the relationship between cooking and photography while you were living in New York, or LA, maybe both and where were you cooking?
JW: I was living in L.A. It was my career as a cook. I didn’t do much cooking in New York. It’s much more of a discriminating palate and I wasn’t a very good cook.
JB: So after cooking in Los Angeles, when did you decided to move to New York? Were you making pictures seriously at this point?
JW: I was taking photographs and it was 1978, I had been making photographs for a couple of years and I had mastered the basics of black and white photography.
JB: So what drove you to move to New York at this point?
JW: A lot of my friends had moved, and there wasn’t that much of an art scene in L.A. as far as I was concerned. And my friends were telling me about a lot of interesting artists in NY, such as Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Cindy Sherman.
JB: Were you friends with any of those people before you moved to NY?
JW: I use to go to New York in the summer, so I met Cindy (Sherman) and Robert (Longo) in 1977, just after they moved down from buffalo. I was beginning to meet this sort of scene that eventually showed at Metro Pictures with Helene Wiener, so I was friendly with them, because I was making trips back east. Which gave me the heave-ho to leave Los Angles and move to New York.
JB: Did you every show at Hall walls in Buffalo?
JW: No I never showed at Hall walls, but I heard a lot about it.
JB: Were you interested in the music in New York as well at the time? I remember you mentioning Glen Branca.
JW: Yeah, through my friend Matt Mullican I listened to a lot Ramones and Talking Heads, New Wave music. At this other restaurant I worked at one the other waiters went to school with band members of Devo. So I was listening to that early New Wave and Punk stuff when I moved to NY.
JB: Were you playing music?
JW: No, that only happened much later, as you know.
JB: (laughs) Were you taking pictures of any of these bands or was that a separate thing?
JW: No, lets see I wasn’t photographing any of these.. Bruce Conner the assemblage artist, took a lot of pictures in San Francisco of Punk bands and I remember seeing his pictures around. At one point a friend and I got this crazy idea to photograph Iggy Pop
when he came to LA. He was apparently drawing on his self at the time. So we thought it would be interesting to photograph Iggy Pop covered in drawings.
JB: Did you get too?
JW: We got really close, but then we both got really intimidated and pulled the plug, but we got close.
JB: So this is a seg-way to the present question, how long did you spend in New York, because you are back in Los Angeles, now?
JW: I was in New York for almost twenty years, the 80’s and the 90’s for the main part.
And basically I got a phone call in 1994, from Charley Ray to apply for this job in the art program at UCLA. I think you know, one’s career has its ups and downs, and the early 90’s were not the best of times for me. So I needed a job and I was very happy to be approached by UCLA to got out there and teach. I had not taught up until that point, I was making a living off my work.
JB: Where you part of the pictures thing that was happening in New York, you showed with Metro Pictures, correct?
JW: I never showed at Artist Space, I never showed at Hall Walls, but through various friendships and keeping touch with Helene Wiener, who I knew from Los Angeles. And just being part of this large sort of scene that was evolving around Artist Space. I was invited to be part of the original Metro Pictures group. I mean there are the Pictures artists which a much larger group and then there were the artists which showed at Metro Pictures. So I was more or less part of both, even though recently I’ve been thinking about how little my work looks like a lot of those artists. I was interested in recycling images in media or using some o the tropes of commercial photography. It exuded a lot of pressure in my thinking a positive pressure that pushed me to do certain things.
JB: I would say that some of your work was recycling certain iconic images or styles from early 20th century photography, which seems intentional, did you see it that way ? I’m thing of the Railroad Photographs or the Diaries.
JW: I went through an appropriation phase where I was very interested in studio photography and studio portraits of musicians, composers, and artists. So I did a whole group of works I’ve never shown where I did juxtapositions of appropriated images of portraits of artists and intellectuals. Working with appropriated images, which I did as a student, just didn’t seem substantial enough, or my work It just seemed like a ventriloquist was speaking through me.
JB: You mean like the pictures of people reading?
JW: When I started taking photographs I became interested in how the technology of the camera has a built in history, so when you certain cameras you are going to get certain types of photographs. At least that is what I was sensitive too, it’s not true for all photographers. I just had a heighten sensitivity to that idea, and so in a way I appropriated certain photographic styles, and I think that is what you were getting at with your first question.
JB: Yeah, that is a clear way of saying it, but this trend has really continued on. You also become even more interested in the process of making photographs. Did you see the foil photos (untitled 1980-1981), which you seem to be well know for, in relation to the work you are doing now was shown at David Zwirner in April 2005. I’m thinking of the color degradades or the photos shot through screens?
JW: Yes, it is an interest in thinking about different sorts of…..well it is not exactly being interested in depicting optical reality through a lense and straight forward camera system, it’s like thermal photography or other sorts of forces working on light sensitive surfaces. With the aluminum foil photo I was interested in making something extremely clear, but also extremely vague. You can seem them as clear, sharp abstract photographs, but it was very difficult to understand what they were of. I think I continued that sort of fascination with making things that are difficult, they are not difficult to see, but difficult to understand.
JW: Why someone would want to do that, I do not know.
JB: Personally, when I first experienced the work, I thought that your work was always very minimal. In way you are like a “minimalist” making photographs. The question I want ask after seeing the work develop over the last 6 years, who do see yourself relating to as a peer or contemporary? The work has had a very clear directive, and maybe it is not your problem as an artist, because the work seems to be on a trajectory completely on its own,
JW: I can think of various artists over the course of the last 50 years who I like and followed their currents, but contemporary people? To say my work would be mistaken for somebody else, that would be hard to…well obviously Adam Fuss with my new photo-grams, there is some relationship there.
JB: I mean is that something you even think about, or you just keep making your work and that is really not a problem? It just seems you have all these groups when it comes to photography, like the large-scale German photographers, or the conceptual Canadian artists such as Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham or even the constructions of Thomas Demand. Theses photographers seems to make work focusing on a larger issues than just their work and where it takes them.
JW: You mean the photographic zeigiest of representation of clarity and perfection. You know, I like that and occasionally I’ll make pictures that have some of those values, but I’m much more interested in a Dionysosian excess and the actual enjoyment of looking, at this point.
JB: I have this idea that starting out as an artist from Los Angeles, you created a different way of working as an artist, than say the branding that goes on in New York, You and other west coast artists, like Chris Burden, Charley Ray, Paul McCarthy are linked into contemporary art history, but the work comes from the work itself. From each process within their bodies of work, and new body of work is created. I saw this very clearly at the show you had with David Zwirner.
JW: That really good observation about work, although I wouldn’t think of myself as an LA artist, but more as an artist who is unafraid to have their work veer off in other directions. So it is about a commitment to thinking outside of the medium through different procedures and processes, and then making work that is inline with the next project, instead of subject matter, project based work.
JB:I know you don’t see yourself in this Los Angeles New York duality, but there is this kind of branding that goes on in New York. I don’t if it is from the pressure of the market, but every artist gets grouped in a very Modernist way, from East Village to Gothic artist, where as in Los Angeles I never thought or heard about these groupings.
JW: There is no pressure in Los Angeles to do anything, there is no market and there are very few galleries, so no one really gives a shit. So that is a kind of freedom. In New York there are so many artist you have to tally everyone up, to be able to make these pneumonic devices, because it is such a packed scene, it is about density.
JB: Do you think your work or mind space has changed at all be able to be in Los Angeles instead of New York?
JW: I think it probably been very helpful for my work because I don’t have the daily grind of New York, on the other hand I don’t think my work would have been that much different. I brought lots of work from New York to Los Angeles, the Degrades and Light Sources which I still continuing, maybe I’ve started one or two super new things, but even the Screens I’ve been working on for twenty years, in fits and starts. I brought a lot of sensibility from New York to LA.
JB: So exhibition wise you just had a show at Regen Projects in LA, David Zwirner in New york and what else is coming up.
JW: I doing a show in February at Philip Nelson’s gallery in Paris.
JB: So you’re busy.
JB: One final question, do you think the commercial art world has changed much in the twenty-five years when you were starting out as a young artist? I realize this could be a big topic.
JW: I remember two years out of art school wondering if I would get in the Whitney Biennial, so in that sense things have changed that much. I also have a friend who stopped making art for 20 years, wanted to start making art again. He said “Jim so what has happened in the last twenty years?” I said that there are no new positions, but there is just more people trying to occupy them.