Four years after Metamorphosis, the retrospective exhibition which the S.M.A.K. devoted to James Welling’s work by revisiting some twenty series of his photographs created since 1970, the MACS has now invited the American artist to present his current photographic work on architecture and ancient Greek and Roman statuary.
The exhibition’s title, Cento, refers to the ancient practice of assembling fragments of various poetic or musical works. This latest series began in 2018 at the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) in New York, when James Welling photographed the bust of a Roman empress of Syrian origin, Julia Mamaea, which he then printed in a range of colours based on the early photographic printing method of collotype. Moved by the fluidity of the dyes imbuing the portrait and the statue’s stone and returning colour to the face, James Welling realised that this faded, translucent rendering achieved a twofold step back in time: to the polychrome statues of Antiquity and to the black & white photolithography of the first albums that documented 19th century archaeological missions.
These multiple prints from a single negative of Julia Mamaea, a seminal, matricial image, then led to several visits to archaeological sites and museums, notably in Athens and Eleusis, as well as theoretical research into the colours used in Antiquity, in particular by Aristotle. The philosopher’s observation of coloured objects in nature, notably of plants, finds a strange and distant echo in James Welling’s photographic process, through his description of the phenomena of fixation, rinsing and transformation of tints, for example of green foliage.
Yet this archaic conception of colour which the photographs of Cento lead us to poetically contemplate, not least owing to their place in the exhibition, facing a wall painting of a colour chart and the colours used by Aristotle, is only one destination of James Welling’s time travel. Since 1998, Welling has turned to digital technologies and the colour palette of Photoshop, which offers the aesthetic advantage of “liberating colour” from the chains of the subject and its historical condition. “Intense colors and gold leaf emphasized textile, hair and skin,” Welling explains in relation to Cento and its homage to Greek statuary. “Modern approximations of this polychrome are startling to viewers still accustomed to the colorless neoclassic ideals of beauty. But I was not interested in simply recreating the colors of the Ancient Greeks. Using digital technology, I applied highly unnatural colors to the sculptures. My hope is that these colors seep into the ancient stone and take on a life of their own.”
Curator: Denis Gielen