James Welling’s long-standing interest in abstraction has often distinguished his practice from his Pictures-generation peers. His recent subjects include Mies van der Rohe’s 1945–51 Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House. An exhibition of a new selection of works featuring the latter and a video installation opens at Regen Projects in Los Angeles on January 30 and at David Zwirner Gallery in New York on March 24.
WHEN FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT visited the Glass House, as Philip Johnson tells it, he was unsure whether he was inside or outside. He said that he didn’t know whether or not to take his hat off. Another quote by Johnson on the house: “Nature is the most expensive wallpaper.” I think the greatest thing about the house is that you’re “inside” once you step on the property. The Glass House is, in truth, a large structure of landscape architecture and a dozen buildings and sculptures.
In 2005, I started making multiple exposures using six filters (red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, yellow) for photographs I called “Hexachromes.” These images recorded vibrantly colored shadows on succulents in my front yard. I exhibited the “Hexachromes” in 2006 at Donald Young Gallery, in Chicago, and it was on that trip that I had an opportunity to visit and photograph the Farnsworth House. I showed these pictures (also made using six filters) to Jody Quon at New York magazine and she asked me to photograph Philip Johnson’s Glass House using whatever techniques I wanted.
I started shooting the Glass House in 2006 with the same filters I used for “Hexachromes,” but that technique really depended on motion and shadows to produce multicolored images. Nothing moved over the three days, so I decided to hold the filters in front of the lens, sometimes in pairs. This is how I began to incorporate arbitrary colors into pictures of the Glass House. I went back seven more times over the following three years.
I’ve been using the word filter as a noun, but it’s also a verb. A filter lets some wavelengths of light through and certain kinds of information to seep in. In addition to colored filters, I used clear glass, clear plastic, fogged plastic, pieces of glass that were slightly uneven or tinted, and finally a diffraction filter that breaks light into spectrums. Now I bring everything with me when I shoot, but initially I introduced new filters one by one. When I realized I could make the grass red or make sun flares, splatters, and different types of visual activity in front of this supposedly transparent house, or box, the project became a laboratory for ideas about transparency, reflectivity, and color.
In December 2008 I brought an HD video camera to the Glass House and shot some footage, but I wasn’t happy with it. Two days later I went back with my low-definition Canon G6 camera and shot video in the strange, snow-covered Lake Pavilion, which was built in 1962. It turned out to be much more exciting footage than the material I made with the HD camera and it became my first video in thirty-five years. I showed Lake Pavilion in 2009 at Galerie Nelson-Freeman in Paris and at Donald Young. Now I’m working on another video installation, Sun Pavilion, based on footage from that pavilion that I shot in October, which will debut at Regen Projects.
When I work at the Glass House, time seems to speed up. I never have enough time to work there. It’s very strange. One of the problems I have with the house as a piece of architecture is that, although it is symmetrical, the front is the same as the back, there are very few views of it that I work with. I use a frontal view primarily (because you can see through the house) and occasionally I can get something out of a diagonal view. Recently I have been photographing the inside of the Glass House. I’m trying to deal with Johnson’s very precise interior, unchanged from 1949, still housing an Elie Nadelman sculpture, a Nicolas Poussin painting, and an ensemble of furniture by Mies van der Rohe.
While the architecture of the Glass House in itself isn’t so revolutionary, what is revolutionary about Johnson’s house is its conceptual use of glass. This big glass box is plunked down in the Connecticut landscape. It’s such a direct statement of transparency and of reflective surfaces. It’s a lens in the landscape. In my work I’m adding to the conceptual conceit of the house by introducing a new decor of color and of distorted reflecting surfaces.
James Welling, 6236, 2008, digital ink-jet print, 33 5/8 x 50 1/2". All images from the “Glass House” series, 2006–2008.
James Welling, 0818, 2006, digital ink-jet print, 33 5/8 x 50 1/2".
James Welling, 0775, 2006, digital ink-jet print, 33 5/8 x 50 1/2".
James Welling, 5237, 2008, digital ink-jet print, 33 5/8 x 50 1/2".
James Welling, 6618, 2008, digital ink-jet print, 33 5/8 x 50 1/2".
James Welling, 5253, 2008, digital ink-jet print, 33 5/8 x 50 1/2".
Left: Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Antiteater, 2009. Performance view. Right: Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Black Mariah (The dancers’ films & performance objects), 2009, two fabric jackets, six leather skins, two painted wooden panels, DVD performance documentation, 55 1/8 x 47 1/4 x 19 5/8". Installation view, Pouges les Eaux, France, March 2009.
Lili Reynaud-Dewar engages a motley fold of influences in her performances and installations––from gender theory to Rastafarianism to the origins of cinema––presented by a cast of collaborators that includes her mother and burlesque performer Mary Knox. Her exhibition “Antiteater” at the Frac Champagne-Ardenne opens January 21.
THE PERFORMANCE is really the starting point for this exhibition. Unlike my previous work, which has always been staged autonomously inside an exhibition space, this performance occurred over the course of an evening of productions celebrating the Frac Champagne-Ardenne’s twenty-second anniversary. I displayed four objects or groups of objects onstage, all of which I’ve used in performances before, from Love = UFO to Black Mariah and The Power Structures, Rituals & Sexuality of the European Shorthand Typists. The principal idea was that I would show archival footage of past performances while talking about them—however, instead of describing what you actually saw onstage or on-screen, I talked about various sources that inspired the work, from Sun Ra to cartoons to Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto.” Meanwhile, performers reenacted one another’s roles onstage behind me, each one taking on the part of another in the mode of Fassbinder’s Antiteater, in which all members of the company were constantly shifting positions.
In the exhibition, the video of the performance is projected onto a really large wall that Marine Huggonier used for her exhibition this fall at the FRAC. She had also used this wall to project a video that was between cinema and documentary. I thought it might be interesting to give this wall a different purpose, namely, to host the document of a performance, one in which I talk at length about the notion of a filmed performance and its relationship to theater and live performance, theater and cinema, as well as performance and video.
The projection is reflected in a huge mirror on the opposite wall, so that visitors are somehow trapped between these two large surfaces. In this way, the audience that is present for the performance will be replaced by the audience present for the exhibition. In the same room, I am also showing the performers’ costumes, which were designed by Mathieu Bernard. In another room are the original sculptures, displayed all together—which is something I’ve never done before. I hope it will function to create relations among these very different projects.
Though this is a completely new step for me—I’ve never been onstage with the performers before, nor have I ever presented the film of a performance outside of an installation—it nonetheless is an extension of how I’ve worked in the past. I always take something from a previous project and use it in the next one, creating a different situation with similar objects or similar performers. But here, for the first time, I was able to get all the performers I have worked with so far together onstage—like a working troupe.
I wanted my role in all of this to be quite funny. I think there’s a sense of humor in placing yourself onstage and trying, if not actually to justify the work—because the justification is not the meaning—then to make yourself look as though you are somehow doing this by supporting the performance with language or discourse. In a way, this restrains the audience from their desire to enjoy the performance without having to listen to the artist talk about it. The exhibition accentuates this, because while visitors come to see the show, they will have to hear my voice constantly. A voice will always accompany the video, one you cannot escape. Compared with my previous shows, and Black Mariah in particular, which was completely silent, this one will leave you with a certain sound, the sound of an exhibition.
Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular celebrates Smith’s wide-ranging oeuvre and is available this month from Getty Publications. Here, Rani Singh, director of the Harry Smith Archives, discusses the book’s inception and Smith’s significance to the field. On January 28, the Hammer Museum will host a launch party with Patti Smith.
HARRY SMITH EMPHASIZED seeing the mundane in a creative light and would regularly ask people, “Have you been creative today?” Essentially, his search for synthesizing world cultures was what his artmaking and lifetime achievements were all about.
Although Smith was primarily known as a filmmaker and the producer of the Anthology of American Folk Music, his myriad collections of string figures, Seminole patchwork quilts, and tarot cards, as well as his involvement in peyote rituals and his art and painting practices, had not been looked at together. It is quite possible that people in the film world had no idea of his other endeavors and vice versa. So the Getty Research Institute thought that it would be a good idea to bring all these disciplines together for a symposium, which we did in 2001 and 2002.
The book brings together these disparate arenas of Smith’s life. It comprises reworked essays from the symposia, and we also commissioned additional texts and, most important, had a wealth of primary sources: interviews with Smith, full documentation of his presentations, and a lot of never-before-seen archival materials. We also had the ability to make scans of his 16-mm and 35-mm films, which is pretty astonishing because it gives us the opportunity to see each frame individually, and those frames are works of art unto themselves.
To celebrate the book, we’re holding events in New York, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle. Patti Smith was an old and dear friend of Smith’s. She knew him when she was living with Robert Mapplethorpe at the Chelsea Hotel, and they spent a lot of time together. The new book speaks at length about that era. (Funnily enough, there’s an exhibition at the DOX Center for Contemporary Art in Prague on the Chelsea Hotel that reconstitutes Smith, Mapplethorpe, and Warhol’s rooms there.) I hope that the book reflects Smith’s search for melding multiple disciplines and approaches, a worldview that synthesizes different cultures and ways of doing things.
I was Harry’s assistant from 1988 until his death in November 1991, and when he passed away I started the Harry Smith Archives as a nonprofit and attempted to locate, collect, preserve, and present his materials, which, due to his irascible nature and peripatetic lifestyle, were essentially all around the globe. Smith lived a very bohemian life, to put it mildly. When I’d visit him, his stuff would be all chockablock––it was really an incredible experience. Whether he was staying at the Chelsea Hotel, at the Breslin Hotel, at Naropa Institute, or in a room in Allen Ginsberg’s apartment in the Lower East Side, it was always an experience. He would have a Seminole patchwork hanging up or a frozen bird in the freezer or a film project in the works and stacks and stacks of books. The room usually had a unique odor, a mix of marijuana and Salem 100 cigarettes and whatever kind of beer or cheap vodka was on sale that week. It was all very heady.
M. K. Guth is a Portland, Oregon–based multimedia artist and filmmaker who has exhibited widely and received critical praise for her work in the 2008 Whitney Biennial. Her exhibition at the World Financial Center in New York opens January 6.
THERE ARE DEEP CONNECTIONS between my current project, This Fable Is Intended for You: A Work-Energy Principle, which is part of Mark Russell’s 2010 Under the Radar Festival, and the installation I created for the 2008 Whitney Biennial, Ties of Protection and Safe Keeping––but there are a lot of departures as well. The similarities revolve around narrative structure and the amplification of collective voice and human presence, and also around the consideration of a particular site. But the two projects are significantly different.
The Whitney installation was truly interactive; however, in my new work, the public does not interact with the piece physically, but through acts of generosity. People who live and work in lower Manhattan have donated all the materials—used clothing and fabric—that compose the project. These materials have directly shaped the appearance and process of the work, but the public has not literally helped to construct the installation as they did at the Whitney. My new work is arguably more expansive, and it presents the process of the piece in three successive phases.
In November, during the first phase of the project, I conducted a residency at 1 New York Plaza in lower Manhattan. The residency space was an old retail store that is now used by artists. It has two large banks of windows, so the public could view me at work with my assistant, the New York–based artist Molly Dilworth. The space acted as a window onto the performance of our labor. People could witness materials undergo transformation for the exhibition. I took into account aspects of display and construction. So, for instance, as Molly and I processed donated materials, we worked in unison: cutting, folding, hanging, stacking, or sewing––using the same types of movements––and placing materials with a mind to the aesthetic qualities of place. Each week, the space changed to complement a different form of work, accumulating into an environment of diverse forms, colors, materials, and gestures.
The exhibition––the second phase of the project––takes place in the gallery at the World Financial Center. It features long lengths of cord braided from the used fabric and clothing. The cords are anchored to backpacks hung along the walls of the gallery. The backpacks are removed from the walls for the performances and then replaced. The gestures of the residency are also captured in the exhibition, but in other forms––filling vitrines, for instance. The show acts as a staging area for the performances, and the original labor of the project is still present there.
The January performances are the final phase and culmination of the project. They involve twenty-four volunteer performers from different backgrounds––some are people I met during the residency who work in lower Manhattan, some are artists, writers, performance artists, etc. Each of the twenty-four performers will wear a backpack with a sixty-six-foot braided cord attached to it––thirty-three feet on either side. As the performers walk throughout the Winter Garden, they follow a series of choreographed movements based on maps I created in response to the architecture and significance of the site. As the performers shift, they create shifting geometric shapes––temporary sculptures––that amplify the shape and character of the Winter Garden. The braided cords connect the performers. As the performers change formation, they must carefully negotiate and manage the cords.
The geometric shapes created during the performance resemble much of the reflective glasswork in the atrium and also some of the intricate stonework on the floors. I’m interested in how the performers will amplify the human presence of the people who work in lower Manhattan and the patterns they follow in their daily lives. The title of the piece, This Fable Is Intended for You: A Work-Energy Principle, is inspired by an 1836 Hans Christian Andersen story. In the story there is a mirror, and when someone looks in the mirror, it tells the person about his or her life. I like the idea that a work of art tells everyone a little bit about everybody else––either through a reflection or a collective voice.