Time-Lapse Videos and Still Photographs 2016-2018
June 23 - July 31, 2018
313 Gallery, New York, NY
By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, July 2018
I was being shown around a roof garden, a chunk of well-groomed raw nature atop a stately Manhattan building, and took a look over the Upper East Side. There were splashes of rooftop greenery just about everywhere. “The people who own this get to see a lot of gardens,” I observed to Halsted Welles, who designed and built this one.
“Any of yours?”
Welles, a tall man with the slightly battered look of a scholar/athlete, jabbed a finger here, there, there, here.
“I made those,” he said.
Roof gardens surely exist in other cities but are seldom noticeable. Manhattan is a perpendicular city, though, so walkers get to see seductive tufts of greenery high above the street and from an upper floor of a tall building in a pricey zipcode you are certain to spot several such oases. Which is as close to a choice roof garden as most of us will get. because owning such a property is like owning an island, except that, deliciously, it’s right above the teeming streets, traffic snarls and sporadic sirens of a pulsing cityscape.
Endowing such a tight urban space - often involving neighbors, physical and architectural, one might not necessarily have chosen - with the seasonal life and rhythms of the natural world is quite a trick. Those who create such life-enhancing spaces of whatever size have been respected as artists since way before Versailles – Hello, Hanging Gardens of Babylon - and Halsted Welles has been an increasingly dominant figure in this practice in New York for half a century. It has only been fairly recently though that he began exploring ways to make his vision of the life of the gardens that are his work-product more widely available. Garden Portraits, the show of Welles’ new work now up at 313 Gallery, in Gowanus, Brooklyn, is, the fruit of the endeavor.
Garden Portraits consists of fourteen time-lapse videos, along with some of the photographic stills that went into their making.
Welles calls the stills “objets trouves” and has presented them as diptychs and triptychs, describing them as “teasers” for the time-lapses. Each time-lapse has been edited from the stills taken from many months of video footage to present the natural cycle of growth, decay and rebirth on a perpetual loop. So a principal art material that went into the making of the Garden Portraits is the Fourth Dimension, Time, making the process he has captured seem as organic as breathing.
Welles’s journey began at Antioch College, Ohio, and it got off to a zigzag start. “It was a good school for me, me not knowing what I really wanted,” he says. Antioch sent students out to work in positions related to the direction that their lives seemed likely to take out for stretches of from three to six months and the college had noted that Welles had a gift for science. “I was all over the place on jobs,” he says. “I was working with the fish and wildlife service in Michigan … the Marine Lab in Maryland … I was working as a pre-med student in a Chicago hospital .”
The Antioch aptitude tests had also shown though that Welles was drawn to art and design so he was offered a work/study scholarship at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. He was modeling in clay from a live model under the tutelage of Reuben Kadish when he realized that for the first time he felt wholly at home with what he was doing. Art it was. So at the age of 20 he went to Paris to join the studio of the sculptor James Metcalf and was shortly working in metal and wood. “I got so comfortable there,” he says. ”You could make a solid block o driftwood turn into …. whatever you wanted to make it!”
He returned to the States and Yale. There he worked with James Rosati, carving in stone. ‘I loved the stone,” he says. “The rhythm of carving it and all that.”
Welles moved to New York after graduation to make a career as a working artist. He began carving bio-morphic forms in stone, then moved on to metal and made mix-media pieces assemblages by bolting together metal and rubber. In 1969 came the moment every young artist is waiting for: A first show. This was at the Ingber Gallery. Nothing sold. Welles, like so many emergent artists, needed to work out how - excuse a pre-glutenphobic phrase - to put bread on the table. Well, his parents had set up a tree nursery outside their house in Upstate New York. He had begun working in it when he was young and shown a natural gift for it. The private garden is a New York phenomenon. It was a perfect arena for Welles and he was soon getting commissions. He actually visualized one of the first with a sculpture attached. “It was for a woman who had twenty cats,” he says. “And I had to design a fence that would not let them get out. And it had a little water feature. After the garden was built I asked can I just put a sculpture there and take some pictures? And she ended up buying it. It was one of the first forays into making gardens. I was fully engaged in the business when I was 28.”
Welles stopped making actual sculptures, though, as he rose steadily in the profession of garden building. From sculpture, a more or less public art form, he now immersed himself in a very private practice. Now, he has gone public again with the time-lapses, videos edited together from innumerable stills. How did he get to this place? Was there a lightbulb moment?
“It was a conversation at dinner,” Welles said. He told the table about a photographer who had been photographing whales from really close in their breeding grounds. “And because he was close up he got some amazing detail. The eyes were particularly noteworthy. Then he stitched the photographs together and he made a life-sized print” Welles said. He told the table that he was thinking of using the same process to present one of his gardens. “Then Eddie Kleban, who is a producer of television commercials, came up this idea of a time-lapse.
“So the dinner conversation was important. Then I was in a client’s foyer, waiting. And there was an art piece, a time-lapse image of a forest. It looked like nothing was moving, except the water in the background. The piece was on a 16 hour loop and if you waited long enough there was a canoe that went down the stream. I went Aha! You can do a portrait of a garden. Because digital technology allows the portrait to show time. That for me was the Aha! moment.
“You can’t be a gardener without understanding time. You just have to plant a seed to see that. You walk away and you come back and it’s up to here. The growing is time. The light is time. The sun and the shadow are time.”
Where was this?
“It was in a town house on 73rd Street between Park and Lexington, a neck of the woods where I’ve done quite a few gardens.”
Time is a part of all art. It takes time to make a painting, it takes time to look at a painting. But that’s carving out a particular chunk of time. Welles is making time the protagonist in these pieces. Right?
“Maybe that’s the honesty in time lapses,” he said. “It’s not a narrative you work on. You don’t think about it. You just stick your damned cameras there and you get what you get.
“I came out of sculpture. My last pieces are multimedia pieces, mixing rubber and stone … plastic, wood … bolting it together. Then when I got into the gardens it was a multimedia form to me. What the time lapse does is it shows you the incredible movement of light. not over the season, just in a damned day! When it rains. Or from day to night.
“It’s much more microscopic than designing a garden for the seasons. In the editing room it’s basically Holy Gazoley! What’s that about? This is cool! When you get the results. Which, in my case, since I have given them plenty of light and shadows, are the many gardens I have built.” WM
Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist.
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