The dramatic, glossy black shapes in James Welling's "Gelatin Photographs" from the mid 1980s look like coal or tar or chunks of primordial ooze. Both obdurate and strangely fleshy, they are arrayed haphazardly across stark white grounds like some oily, alien sputum — or an abstract painting.
Actually, they are made of much more quotidian stuff: Jell-O, dyed black with ink.
These mysterious images appear in Welling's current retrospective at the Hammer Museum. On view through Jan. 12, it surveys 35 years of photographic work in which nothing is ever just Jell-O.
That slippery sweet is made from gelatin, which is also the substance applied to film or paper to hold a traditional photographic image. The title "Gelatin Photographs" is therefore both descriptive and redundant. All traditional photographs are gelatin photographs.
The images are a kind of photographer's inside joke, throwing at us the raw materials of photography — gelatin in black and white — chilled and solidified. The photos thumb their noses at the preciousness of the photographic surface even as they acknowledge its evanescence; the "Gelatin Photographs" are in fact inkjet prints.
Welling's work is about photography itself, or the conditions — technical, philosophical, aesthetic — under which photographs can be made. Through that lens they touch on lots of other things: history, the passage of time, nature and the built environment. They are also ridiculously beautiful and sometimes a tad nostalgic, two traits one doesn't normally associate with such disciplined, self-reflective thinking.
Since the 1970s, Welling has been walking this tightrope between the intellectual rigor of Conceptual art — he studied with John Baldessari at CalArts in the early '70s — and his admiration for artists who worked in a more pictorial vein, like Andrew Wyeth and Charles Burchfield.
The exhibition ricochets, as Welling's career has, between fairly straightforward black-and-white photographs of buildings and people, and thoroughly abstract, chance-driven darkroom experiments and colorful, digital manipulations. In pulling all these seemingly disparate bodies of work together, the exhibition reveals how Welling has addressed a dilemma that still plagues many artists: After the rise of Conceptual art, in which ideas are prized over appearances, what happens to beauty?
For Welling, the question meant getting back to basics, as in the "Gelatin Photographs," interrogating the materials and processes of his chosen medium. In the 1980s he began the "Degradés," Rothko-esque compositions created by exposing photographic paper not through a negative but through two different colored gels.
Now that it's easy to create a perfect gradient with the swipe of a mouse, these photos have lost a bit of their impact. But the super-saturated images with their sometimes subtle, sometimes startling color transitions are both reductive — pure, photographic color — and transcendent. Stacked one atop the other like sky and land, they are redolent of those overly familiar but often still moving vistas: sunrises and sunsets.
At about the same time, Welling was also making beautifully composed, straightforward black-and-white images of railroads and the Romanesque architecture of H.H. Richardson, which he admired from his childhood in Connecticut. There is certainly a bit of nostalgia in these images. The stolid Richardson buildings in particular are bereft of human presence and often snow-covered, as if they have been abandoned.
At first, these photos seem to have little to do with Welling's darkroom experiments. But like the "Degradés," they participate in a familiar aesthetic language: in this case the decorous compositions of early modern photographs. They also have a conceptual angle: They capture 19th century buildings and technology that became widespread about the same time as photography. In a later series, Welling trained his lens on industrial looms, precursors to computers.
The specter of digital technology hovers over the exhibition. Its takeover of the photographic industry makes Welling's investigations of the properties of light and emulsions seem even more wistful. Photographs don't just record events past; they are themselves disappearing.
Welling's lyrical, intensely colored photograms of flowers were inspired by the dead specimens pressed into books, but their reliance on hand-cut and glued color gels (on display in a vitrine) feels all the more wondrous for not being created in Photoshop.
Yet Welling is no laggard. In recent years he has turned his attention to modern architecture, creating series centered around Philip Johnson's iconic Glass House and the Maison de Verre in Paris. The Glass House appears suffused in magnificent fields of color that Welling created in situ by holding gels in front of the camera's lens.
By contrast, his images of the Maison de Verre, which he found to be a dark and depressing space, are digitally manipulated. The rooms are lightened and brightened so that in some cases they glow unnaturally like a magazine spread.
Both series can be seen as a rejoinder to the austerity of modern architecture, but the Maison de Verre photos feel like a blatant act of wish fulfillment. They are the restoration, through image-making, of an ideal of modern living that the actual structure no longer conveys.
So much art laments the passing of this and that, but the Maison de Verre series is a rebuke to regret. In willfully refusing to document the house as it is, Welling fully embraces artifice, moving closer to the ideas — lightness, transparency — that inspired a house of glass in the first place. Beauty, in this case, is the idea.
"James Welling: Monograph," UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Closed Mondays. $10 (free admission begins in February 2014). hammer.ucla.edu or (310) 443-7000.