Roger Welch: Traces of Time

Art Review by Donald Goddard

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On a canvas stretched as the silhouette of an old steam engine, about sixteen feet long, is painted the scene of a suburban railway station (Westfield, New Jersey, where Roger Welch grew up) with tracks and passenger platform plunging into perspective depth, the station building itself on the right and a middle-aged man in a business suit standing on the platform in the center. The work could have been done simply as the replica of a steam engine or as a rectangular painting in which the steam engine is depicted on the tracks heading into the distance. Either could have been complete in itself, analyzable as a whole entity, within the borders of what it is, an illusion within a frame or a thing that exists in space. But there are two images, which changes everything, though not like one of Magritte's phenomenological tricks.
Steam Train
© Roger Welch
Steam Train, 1986.
Oil on shaped canvas, 96" x 192"

One image, that of the engine, seems to invade the landscape, overwhelming the latter yet carrying within it a world much larger than itself. It jolts the landscape into existence, but then the landscape is not whole; it conforms to the outline of the engine. One wants to know the totality of the landscape but cannot because it does not fill out a rectangular picture but is interrupted by the features of the engine. In the picture, the man waits for the train, which never comes because it exists on another plane, and then, of course, both exist on other planes entirely, sometime in the past. And conversely, the engine is not an engine but a picture. Still, the engine, in its evocation of bulging and clattering reality, becomes the medium for less material and more difficult structures of reality and a surrogate for the artist.

Welch himself is the intruder in his two "Memory Maps" of 1973, the earliest pieces in the show. The maps are materializations of memories recounted by two elderly women of the cities where they grew up--Winifred Wakerly in Rome, New York, and Ruth Elliot in Hannibal, Missouri. As Welch interviewed them he plotted the streets and buildings they described using blocks of wood on a board. The maps are accompanied by excerpts from the interviews and photos of the women and Welch during the interviews, but no old photographs of the places, not because they would correct or diverge from memory but because they would mislead and conceal the very things the women knew and experienced and that only exist in individual experience anyway. These miniature cities have an extraordinary presence, in the present, of the past reconstructed.


Drive In: Second Feature, of 1982, appears at first to be the work of a lunatic or an obsessive folk artist. A full-size 1950s Cadillac constructed in great detail of branches and twigs faces a screen hung on a framework of branches where previews for "B" movies are shown over and over again. Like the cities, the car has an extraordinary presence, but in this case bizarre and animate. It is one of the most beautiful and fully realized objects in contemporary art.

Drive In Feature
© Roger Welch
Drive In: Second Feature, 1982.
Film and sculpture installation, size variable.

Like the steam engine it is a moving vehicle that has taken over the space and stands there in your way, immobile. It appears itself to be looking at or projecting the movies. You begin to see the details and discover that it is exquisite, and more than any car could be, completely functionless but replicating in a crazy way, like our own minds. Its delusions are shown on the screen.

Second Feature
© Roger Welch
Drive In: Second Feature. Detail of car.

With The History of Design of 2000, wood remains the construction material, but in a classical, architectural form. Six columns hold up a pediment with photographs of young men and women arrayed like the ancient Greek figures in the Temple of Zeus at Olympus. The young people are themselves constructing and finishing a wall (in the modern fashion, with studs and wallboard), so there is a strangely redundant quality about the architecture's containment of the imagery and vice-versa, about the circularity of history. At the center of the columns is a newspaper ad for the building supplies business of Welch's family in Westfield, which goes back several decades. 

Jimmy Hanging Baldessari
© Roger Welch
Jimmy Hanging Baldessari, 1999. Photos and wood.

Welch is compelled to make things, in a line that provides the material. There is nothing outside that tradition, and the framework remains constant, but as in all of Welch's work, there are always more questions, and his constructions insist on them. The interview with the ladies in 1973 could have gone on forever. The car and the materials it is made of are more intricate than anything ever produced in Michigan. The steam engine diverts attention from what might actually be taking place in the landscape. And the young people crowning the temple--the artists--are doing things that cannot really be understood in their process.

Donald Goddard © 2001

History of Design
© Roger Welch
The History of Design, 2000. Photographic installation, about 120" x 384"

The exhibition was on view at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, 735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase, NY 10577-1400.

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