(Wo)man and Beast in the Round of Their Need
October 11 to November 17, 2018
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL October, 2018
Sparely installed but a fulsome sampling nonetheless, the seven paintings exhibited here drew us into Wellmann’s feverish painting world with a magnetic pull. The milky opalescence and satin-silk sheen of her subjects – dogs, coupling humans – offered up a rare repast: a beguiling painterly smorgasbord seldom heretofore sampled. Indeed, in this respect, Ambera Wellmann is to painting what Jessica Eaton is to photography in Canada and beyond: a hugely inventive and rapidly rising star. In this eloquent exhibition, we can see why.
Wellmann identifies feral lust and funky morphosis as ruling tropes and passions of her paintings’ present tense. A free translation of “The Sheep Child” by American southern novelist and poet James Dickey (better known for his novel Deliverance) accompanies the show. But a Dylan Thomas poem would have been just as resonant. His: “From love’s first fever to her plague, from the soft second/And the hollow minute of the womb/From the unfolding to the scissored caul/The time for breast and the green apron age/When no mouth stirred about the hanging famine/All world was one, one windy nothing/My world was christened in a stream of milk.” serves equally well. Wellmann dilates wildly on human desire, need and transmogrification.
In these new works, she continues her supple and intrepid exploration of faux porcelain surfaces. If you saw these images on the Internet on your cell phone screen, you might think they were actually sculptural -- modelled in porcelain. But they are painted images on canvas grounds. Consider Fantasy Suite (oil and acrylic on linen, 2018) and Downward Facing Dog (oil and acrylic on linen, 2018). The painter shows that the porcelain guise functions with unusual affect and effect as a lexicon for manipulating the body in a most intriguing fashion, with a sort of randy semiosis, accentuating the sensuality and self-presence of the flesh. The figures are often imbued with a dark humour and exaggerated elasticity, the latter making it all the more effective for depicting sundry sexual acts and situations from a female perspective.
Wellmann, who paints like a repletely untethered fallen angel, has a very sophisticated understanding of the history of painting and what is still possible for it. The backstory here is simply radiant: she has successfully inverted the male gaze and is in effortless control of her own agenda and plotline. She is also something of a pundit, and I mean this in no derogatory way. She has the licks and the knowledge to back it all up. (The term pundit originates from the Sanskrit term meaning "learned man" – here “learned woman” – one whose erudition is beyond repute.) The painter posits woman as polymorphous progenitor who owns both the subject and the object of the gaze. And the porcelain objects that she depicts are resonant surrogates for embodiment, for human (and animal) flesh, and their eminently tactual mutton fat sheen (like the thick white fat of a porterhouse steak or the greasy surface of mutton fat jade) glistens with tasty pigment-fraught excrescences like well-nuanced daubs of sweat on skin.
Wellmann is looking for an unusual escape hatch from the tired old orthodoxies of painting; and in the porcelain painting language she has found it. It affords her new traction on the slippery slope of painting’s irredeemable present, as well as the prospect of eventual surprise in that she is very much still evolving, if at a hectic pace that still seems inordinately well measured in its mien.
Wellmann is avidly followed for her Instagram images, the fruit of reconciliation and relief for a painter presumably waiting for the paint to dry in her studio, and the humour one finds in her paintings is more freely evident in her posts there (she described them as ‘one-liners’ but they are far more than that: they are the seedlings of painting ideas, and they relate to her painting in a similar way that sublimated anterior surfaces do to finished surfaces in her paintings.) The crosspollination between the images posted on her Instagram account and those in her painting space is grounded in the body and its morphologies, its immanence as an unfettered erotic playground. Her skill as a narrator interested in unhinging our common sense knowledge of the world and the bodies that inhabit it from conventional meanings is peerless. It’s no exaggeration. She installs subversive changelings in their place. Such is the case in paintings like the aforementioned Fantasy Suite (2018) and Scorpio Rising (oil on linen, 2018). Hers’ is a constructive panorama of erotic, atomic grotesquerie laid bare on the ground plane of representation itself. But one lurching heavenwards all the while – rooted in the human frame but also rooting for transcendence from the way of all flesh. She reminds us that both empathy and comedy are still possible.
Ambera Wellmann is one of very few painters now working to have meaningfully reinvented painting on her own terms, in her own image. One might cite the South African painter Marlene Dumas as a fellow traveller in this regard. The fey beauty of her portraits as well as her ingenious way with perspective and proportionality is kindred. More importantly, you could never call the work of either artist pornographic. They do share a highly charged erotic content -- all the better to shake the viewer out of any vitrified complacency and to push that viewer past the failsafe point into new and uncharted territory. Perhaps more importantly, they secure a new future for painting. WM
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.