James Welling at S.M.A.K. in Ghent

'Metamorphosis' is the name of the big new exhibition at Ghent's contemporary art museum, the S.M.A.K. With examples from twenty different series of works of art the exhibition provides an overview of the entire career of artist-photographer James Welling. The selection of work on show in Ghent is a joint choice by the artist himself, James Welling, and curators Heike Eipeldauer and Martin Germann.

Co-curator Tanja Boon: “Born in the state of Connecticut the American Welling studied the arts of painting and dance, but didn't follow any conventional training as a photographer. He did work with John Baldessari.”

The exhibition opens with a video: “The Sun Pavilion”. It shows Welling's love of experimentation. We see Philip Johnson's Glass House. Welling films the various buildings on this famous site, filming the architecture and using glass as a photographic lens. The result is a reflection on photography.

Tanja Boon: “Welling uses colour filters, experiments with plastic filters and explores the question 'How come we see what we see?'”

As a young artist Welling made use of the materials in his surroundings to produce his art. Early works employ aluminum foil to represent landscapes, but the result is an illegible image. Welling is exploring the question 'How transparent is photography?'.

In Ghent you can also see a sculpture made of rusty clothes hangers, an example of how the young Welling made use of readily available, cheap materials to construct his art.

Tanja Boon: “Welling depicts architecture, railroads and industrial machinery. All items that date from the same time as the beginning of photography. He attaches great importance to his origins and that of his family. His Diary Landscape series is inspired by the diary of his great-great-grandmother. Using landscapes from the area around his family's home he probes the inner landscape of his great-great-grandmother's mind too.”

Tanja Boon: “'Metamorphosis' also includes a remarkable premiere: the video 'Seascape'. Once again we notice how Welling's family background impacts on his work. Welling's grandfather was a painter. He loved to depict the sea, but lived very far from the sea itself. In the 30's friends suggested he film the sea and that's exactly what he did. Welling's grandfather used the film to inspire his paintings. 'Seascape' employs the original material provided by Welling's grandfather’s film, but Welling has supplied the colours based of his grandfather's paintings!”

Philp Johnson's Glass House built in the late 40's in the late modernist style also inspired one of Welling's series. The Glass House is used as a lens to refract the light. Time and time again at the exhibition you are struck by Welling's love of experimentation. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish his photographic works from paintings. The Drapes Series echoes the skills employed by the Dutch painter Vermeer during his heyday. In another series Welling returns to the home of painter Andrew Wyatt after he has died. Welling goes in search of the absent painter.

For a while Welling also lived in Brussels. The city proved an inspiration for several of the works in his Light Source Series. We see the Anderlecht abattoirs, the flea market on the Vossenplein and the neon advertising from this Brussels bakery.

Many of Welling's later works are the result of experimentation in his photographer’s dark room. The use of only two colour filters results in the Photogram series in which we explore the essence of photography. Other dark room experiments involve liquids. Once again the painter's palette is not far off. The artist's most recent works seem particularly sophisticated. Dance, architecture and landscapes all feature in experiments that make use of the latest Photoshop technology.

The exhibition 'Metamorphosis' in the S.M.A.K. In Ghent runs until 16 April 2017. It is organised jointly with the Bank Austria Kunstforum in Vienna, Austria.