The subject of James Welling’s Portrait of an Augustan Girl (2022) appears lost in melancholy introspection. She faces the viewer, but her emerald eyes look off to the side and slightly downward. Alarmingly, her nose is smashed and eroded, and a sizable crater occupies the center of her chin, yet without a trace of blood. Furthering the mystery, a round, pinkish form vaguely resembling a nautilus shell sits on her forehead. These strange attributes make sense when one realizes this is not a portrait of a person, but of an ancient Roman statue.
Each of the pieces in Welling’s show “Iconographia,” recently on view at Regen Projects in Los Angeles, originated from a photo of an artifact—usually the face of a statue—that the artist either shot at a museum or appropriated from a plate in a book. He then manipulated the source images in Photoshop, inserting eyes from old paintings, borrowing necks and chests from other sources, and applying saturated colors to skin and hair. After laser-printing each digital composite onto a plastic lithography plate, Welling dampened the image with water and rolled on a thin glaze of dark ink, toning down the synthetic palette and uniting the disparate blocks of color. The pictures were further tweaked with touches of oil paint and sandy substances, while undesired patches of ink or paint were removed using toothpaste. Imperfections such as stains and creases formed during these final stages, giving the images a more natural look, and conferring a painterly, weathered tactility akin to that of the depicted statuary.
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The title of one of the two series represented in this show, “Cento,” refers to a form of poetry assembled entirely of lines taken from other poems, denoting Welling’s appropriative process while also alluding to fragmented narratives within individual works. “Cento” encompasses partial images of portraits and other artifacts—including Roman glassware and statues’ gesturing hands or truncated bodies—which often bear clear indications of age and damage, but come to seem contemporary through Welling’s choices of palette (at times suggesting makeup) and composition (with cropping and backgrounds subtly emphasizing the artifacts’ status as objects on display).
The other series, “Personae,” stems from “Cento” and includes only portraits. Their titles offer clues to the statues’ identity: the subjects are emperors, empresses, warriors, goddesses, philosophers, and ordinary people, mostly from Rome. A recurring theme of deposed leaders brought back to life—including the particularly creepy Portrait of Caligula (2021), featuring a burned, severed head peering obliquely through narrow eyes—hints at a cautionary tale of history repeating itself. The Romans built a powerful empire that, for all its advancements, descended into chaos, and ultimately fell.
Welling has long been interested in the images societies project of themselves, and how photography can tap into histories and emotions to elicit fresh ways of looking at banal or timeworn subjects. He is often associated with the “Pictures Generation,” a loose movement of artists during the 1970s and ’80s who employed tropes of popular culture and imagery culled from magazines and advertisements, often incorporating critiques of mass media. At that time, Welling dealt with the aesthetics of merchandising. His new work relates more specifically to cyberculture and the circulation of images online. Smoothly colorized embellishments, such as the peachy gradients tinging the cheeks of Portrait of a Child (2022) or the bright-pink lips against grayscale tones in Portrait of a Woman with a Woven Hat (2022), evoke contemporary makeovers enhanced by digital filters. Welling freely acknowledges being influenced by Instagram. During a press preview for this exhibition, he stated that he lifted the eyes in Portrait of Kore 674 (2021) from a Manet painting he found among a slew of museums’ posts on social media honoring the painter’s birthday. Despite his focus on classical art, his spontaneous, at times arbitrary, mixing and matching of recycled references seems very contemporary, reflecting the flattening of time and place online.
Uncanny tensions spring from incongruities between the ancient sculptures’ distressed appearance and the lively contrivance of Welling’s digital effects—which perhaps also bring the battered surfaces of bare white marble closer to their original vividly painted appearance. Blurring the boundaries between animate and inanimate, past and present, these disintegrating yet seemingly sentient people of stone engender a visceral unease as might AI robots or computer-generated avatars; yet their disfigured bodies and pensive expressions also elicit a sense of empathy. The hole in a woman’s forehead in Portrait of Sabina (2022) appears to be a mortal wound, yet she confronts the viewer with gleaming eyes, having survived the ravages of time, war, and plunder.
This tension between survival and destruction is ultimately the strongest register in Welling’s work. Despite eons of upheaval and conquest, Western cultures are still rooted in the same Greco-Roman ideals of art, strength, and beauty evident in these artifacts. Resurrected for us to contemplate, Welling’s characters suggest witnesses to our troubled present, silently reminding us how much—yet how little—things have changed.