Photographer unites homage to Andrew Wyeth with exploration of color at Chadds Ford

The paintings of Andrew Wyeth and the rooms they were painted in have inspired an abstract art installation at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

A few weeks ago, James Welling spent a day at the museum and its ancillary locations — the original studio and the nearby Kuerner Farm where Wyeth painted hundreds of works. Armed with a digital camera in one hand and an iPhone in the other, Welling was hunting for color.

Inside a room of a former schoolhouse that Wyeth had converted into his family home, the artist’s studio has been re-created with all the messy stains and clutter in which Wyeth liked to work. Welling sized up one of the corners with a tape measure.

“I’m possibly going to do a site-specific artwork in here, considering putting a gradient sculpture here,” said Weller, snapping color samples with one of his digital devices. The walls of the studio are strata of plaster cracks, water stains, paint chips, and mold growth. This was much more interesting to Welling than the studio’s easel, paint cans, and piles of sketches.

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“He loved the discolorations and mold growth, the water stains,” said Welling of the studio’s former occupant. “It’s a schoolhouse – the original green on the ceiling was painted a bright green for the school kids, and it’s changed and discolored. Lots of interesting colors in that room.”

Welling will place the colors of the room into a linear gradient, ink-jet printed onto wide strips and mounted in the room. When an exhibition of his more traditionally framed and hung photography opens Aug. 8 in the gallery, these color gradients will be installed throughout the Brandywine River Museum’s properties, each representing the colors in its environment.

Welling is an experimental photographer who came to prominence in the 1980s as a visionary artist of his generation, the “Pictures Generation” (including Cindy Sherman and David Salle). The band Sonic Youth used his photo of a burning scarecrow for its 1985 album “Bad Moon Rising,” and, in 2010, the New York Times commissioned a series of color-filter images for the cover of its Sunday magazine.

An abiding influence

Welling discovered the paintings of Andrew Wyeth as a teenager, and  they had a profound impact on him. His early paintings mimicked that style.

“From Wyeth, I gained an appreciation of different viewpoints,” said Welling. “I went to art school and put childish things away. Then in the early 2000s, I started looking at him again. When he died, I decided to make a project about Wyeth. The gradients are an offshoot of that.”

This is not the first time Welling has visited Chadds Ford. He has been frequenting Wyeth’s homes and studios in Pennsylvania and Maine, taking pictures of the things Wyeth lived with.

The body of work is documentary in nature, but Welling is also an abstract artist, interested in pure color and the vagaries of representation. The work at the Brandywine straddles both impulses.

“It’s a mixture of straight photography and distorted,” said Welling. “So Wyeth became the pretext to making a body of work. It’s an homage to Wyeth, and also exploring things that I’m interested in.”

Welling has been interested in the relationship between an object and its artificial reproduction, and why does art exist at all?

“Color is a very subjective experience. I’m going against that subjectivity by mapping the colors with my digital SLR and iPhone to lock in those colors and put them on a scale,” said Welling. “There’s always a discrepancy between those colors that can be reproduced and those that exist in the room.”

“Things Beyond Resemblance: James Welling Photographs” will be on view at the Brandywine from Aug. 8 to Nov. 15.

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