PUBLISHED IN ISSUE 18
INTERVIEW BY REBECCA STORM
Blue in Green, 23” x 29”, Oil on Paper, Mounted on Dibond, 2018
“Even the presence of a painting like that in the studio can suck the energy out of the painter, because their failures are so present in the room, haunting them.” Ambera Wellmann is lamenting energy vampires—the most highly evolved stage of a failed painting. But failure in this context feels rather oxymoronic floating so near to Wellmann’s visual oeuvre. Born and raised on the East Coast of Canada, Wellmann now operates out of Berlin. Her most recent work, which explores the mythology of porcelain, features moody, amorphous globs—the jelly-like ooze of a tadpole on the precipice of hatching. Visceral and eldritch, her figures are at once sentient and lifeless, entombed in an ethereal placenta.
Rebecca Storm: I was so excited when I first saw your paintings, they pair so intuitively with your aesthetic on Instagram, which was my only frame of reference for your work. Do you feel like you’re pulled between photography and painting?
Ambera Wellmann: I’ve always been a painter, and I don’t think of myself as a photographer at all. Not that it excludes me from being a photographer to just take photos on my iPhone, but it’s never been a way that I’ve thought about myself. I actually started my Instagram account during my MFA, as a source of relief from the attentive intellectualization and articulation of my painting practice. Painting can be such a slow medium—from the production of the work, to the experience and reception and understanding of it. It really just started as something fun, and I think that it’s funny, because some of the criticality that I bring to my painting practice inevitably seeped in to the images that I was producing on Instagram. I think your practices are inseparable—they inevitably become linked in some way, and they influence one another. I like producing images for Instagram, but I don’t take them that seriously. I’ve written and talked about the work critically before, but I think it’s interesting to just maintain a practice that serves a comical purpose, even though that might seem to run contrary to painting. It’s kind of funny to operate in a so-called high and a low sphere at the same time.
It’s true. I feel like applying academic principles to art is counterproductive in a way, so it’s interesting to hear how you navigate that high-low tension.
Yeah! I’ve found that photography is a way to make an image quickly and impulsively without analyzing it to death. The exercise of sharing it as well—before you have a chance to talk yourself out of it, which was what I was doing with painting—is liberating for me. The images I make for Instagram are one-liners. They’re direct and they’re funny, but I’m still exploring some of the same themes that I explore with painting. If you have the idea, just execute it and make it as quickly and as efficiently as possible. I think that I suffered from that when I went to art school, trying to justify why I was making things and having to articulate them with language. It’s just, for lack of a better word, a mind-fuck.
I’ve never seen one of your paintings in real life. I just found out that a lot of them have under-paintings—do they relate conceptually to the top paintings? Or is it more utilitarian, recycling a canvas by painting over something you don’t like, and allowing that to perpetuate the painting’s narrative?
It’s been useful for me to work on top of old images, because the traces of those old images are still there. You get the sense that you can sort of peel through the archaeology of a painting’s surface, that you’re looking at something that was, that is, and that is going to be. You get this sense of simultaneity, and it’s a really beautiful way to articulate a surface of a painting. It’s a really important way for me to think about painting, because so much of my work has been informed by historical painting that when I look at historical work, I think that it doesn’t simply just live in the past. It’s there because it’s always going to become something else. I try and bring that principle into my paintings, and it’s not something that I can really do deliberately. When I work on top of an old image, it’s usually because there was some kind of failure involved, and some kind of dissatisfaction. That just comes from the process of painting, which failure is a huge component of the work. I had a studio visit with Sojourner Truth Parsons not that long ago, and she was looking at this little painting of a pony. She said, “This looks like it has always existed.” I thought it was such a beautiful thing to say, because it encompassed this idea of something living in the past and present simultaneously, and that felt like a beautiful goal for a painting to aspire to, to not really know or understand what era this work came from.
Viper, 16” x 16”, Oil on Linen, 2017
Invisible worm, 24” x 24”, 2017, Oil on Linen
Love Bite, 18” x 18.5”, Oil on Linen, 2018
I love how you’ve rendered porcelain—I assume they’re painted porcelain figurines. They have this almost grotesque quality, the way that any mass-produced porcelain figurines have these carelessly globbed on features, which totally counters the fact that they’re meant to be decorative and conventionally beautiful. I was wondering what purpose you think these decorative figurines have come to serve, and what compels you to explore their narratives through your paintings?
I was always interested in the surface of the body, and getting as close to rendering a sensual surface, and a sensual sense of skin as possible. Then, I painted a sink during my MFA. The porcelain was stained, so it had a sense of physical depth, but it also really highlighted the surface. There was this acrylic underpainting that accidentally bled through my painting. This stain lived in the image of the sink, and also lived in the surface of the painting, and lived in this idea of this object. I started to research porcelain and discovered that the word stemmed from the word “pork.” It stems from the Italian porcella, and it was because of this perceived resemblance between a cowrie shell and the exposed genitalia of female swine. Porcelain was feminized, which seemed to be a really good entry point to the representations of women in our history, that I was so interested in. It also was this thing that lived kind of between being alive and being dead, being animate and inanimate, and it encapsulated or became a perfect metaphor for how I felt about figure painting in general. The surface of painted porcelain is so magnificent, because this surface of an object, and this surface of the painting, become harmonious when you apply these marks.
Do you feel like this work with porcelain is something you’ll continue exploring, or do you feel pulled in other directions?
Right now, I’m still sort of making images that look like porcelain, but they’re becoming stranger and less anchored to their source material. I’ll just be honest, I have no idea where they’re going to go. I think that’s probably good. There’s this expression, “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I’m constantly trying to not be able to articulate what the painting is doing. If the painting escapes language, if I don’t have the words for it, that usually means I’m in a good place because I don’t want there to necessarily be a language for the painting.
Pins and Needles, 38” x 40”, Oil on Linen, 2018.
Wrastler, 12” x 16.5”, Oil on Paper, Mounted on Dibond, 2018
Small Widow, 32×34″, 2018
Given the lack of language, how do you find yourself talking about those paintings? That seems to be such an integral part of being a painter, talking about your work.
I know, it’s like now if you want to be a painter, you have to be a triple threat. You have to sing, act, and dance. You have to talk and write and paint, and I’m not very good at speaking about my work. How do you talk about it? I’ve realized over time that honesty is the best policy and that what might not seem interesting to you might be interesting to someone else. I don’t know if you’ve ever done this, but sometimes I’ll rehearse an interview in my mind, or have a conversation with somebody else in my mind, and give the answers that I think people want to hear. They’ll sound great in my mind, but if you actually put them into practice, it sounds pretentious, because it’s not really what you’re doing or thinking about. I think I paint because I want to know what I’m thinking about.
The nice thing is that you get to meet people sometimes who bring ideas to your work, or interpret your work in a way that perhaps you didn’t think about. I think that language is a group effort, and whatever I have to bring to the table isn’t necessarily going to be the only thing, the painting exists in the social sphere. It’s not like I’m the only one who gets to talk about what it is, or what it should be.
I want to ask you a question that seems exclusively asked to “women creating gross/visceral visuals”—some of the themes in your work could be categorized as grotesque, and I’m curious to know what you personally find grotesque, or visually disturbing?
Like outside of my own work? I think that’s such a good question. I’m trying to think of what actually grosses me out.
I think a lot about that moth that you posted on Instagram, in the glass of wine.
Oh yes, actually, that’s one of the only images that I’ve ever posted that makes me sick when I think about it. Because I took a sip of that wine, and it tasted like raw hamburger to me, like the moth.
That’s actually so disgusting.
I know, I can’t believe I took a sip of it! I used to love horror movies, but I find myself less and less able to stomach horror as I get older. I don’t want to listen to people scream. I don’t want to see disgusting things. I used to love watching plastic surgery television shows. I still do. I don’t know, it’s almost like I often feel really numb to being grossed out right now. I remember the last time I saw something that really moved me was Robert Gober’s retrospective at MoMA in New York, in 2014. He had hyper-realistic wax sculptures of legs severed by the walls, so it’ll just be a leg jutting out from the wall, or a simple part, like a body part, life-size. I think what becomes grotesque in art is something that’s perfectly mundane and normal and everyday, removed from its context so that we look at it as completely foreign and uncanny and strange. The Robert Gober show did that for me, and the experience was extremely visceral. I watch a lot of ASMR videos to fall asleep. ASMR is a lot like porn. You have to constantly be finding new videos because you become numb to their effect. I was watching one where someone was getting a medical examination of their hands. This woman had hands like anyone else’s hands, but I was looking at hers and there was something about her fingers, when she spread them. I thought it was disgusting. It was just something about her hands, and it wasn’t intentional, it just made the human body seem really weird, as if you were looking at it like a dog would look at a human, like “What is that thing?” Grotesque is funny because there’s obviously a lot of literature about the grotesque. A grotesque aesthetic is one thing, but grotesque is actually anchored a lot of the time in things that are spiritual or holy, and that there are experiences that kind of transcend the body, and allow us to recognize a sort of other plane of existence beyond it. I think that’s what always fascinates me about the grotesque, it’s earthly and heavenly simultaneously, so to speak. The limitations or grotesque qualities of the body actually open up a facet of our experience that is way beyond the body.
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