There’s been much talk of Ambera Wellmann’s show Logic of Ghosts at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, but not much talk of her paintings. For in filling the prime Gallery Weekend spot at the hip Berlin dealership, the Canadian painter has taken a big, bold swing: floors and walls are covered in what looks like a chess-chequered pattern, letting the viewer and the paintings hover inside a kind of infinite, virtual blank. It’s a real eye-catcher, a showstopper, a conversation-starter. And it looks wild in photographs – perfect for our new age of PDF art commerce. But why?, people ask, What does it do? What happens to the paintings? What happens to the room? What happens to us?
The black tiles are, in fact, not black, but a deep, deep aubergine. Also (as the press release will inform you, since it’s impossible to see with the naked eye) the pattern is composed of three differently-sized, imperfect squares. Inside each of them is a drawing of a pair of bodies, intertwined in usual Wellmannian fashion. But you can’t see those, either. You bend and move to shift the light and you just might catch a glimpse of a leg or a foot.
The fact that few visitors to the exhibition will realize these details suggests that the drastic intervention with the room is a private, theoretical exercise on the part of the artist – this very much in spite of the photogenic, big-swingedness of the gesture. The purpose of that exercise would be to reflect on the relationship between figure and ground, usually internal to each painting, by emphasizing the relationship between object and space.
Another related concern seems to be breaking down the binary of horizontal and vertical, since the floor and the walls become, at least theoretically, one single plane. As we know, the deconstruction of any pair of opposites can be labeled ”queer” or ”subversive.” I’m not exactly sure what that means. Perhaps that Wellmann is struggling to justify to herself why she is a painter. (If there’s a sliver of this logic, I’d suggest she tweeze it out). But on a practical level, the brazen scenography makes it necessary to go very close to the paintings in order to see them properly; in order to stop the checkers forever flickering in your periphery, or the paintings getting lost to infinity. You’d think this might forge a different sense of intimacy with the works, but it doesn’t. You’re never alone with them, you never escape the checkers.
That Wellmann manages to produce a context that is empty without the purported neutrality of the white cube is a real feat. The grid is like Photoshop before the introduction of the photo; a Word document, perhaps, without the skeuomorphic sheet of A4. It is a fantasy of nothingness, of pure space, that the grid shares with abstract painting, and to some extent with Wellmann’s seeming desire for a type of painting unrestrained from the patricarchal-etc. chains of history.
Landscape with a Figure of a Woman (2020) – yes, I am finally getting to the works – collapses all the categories hinted at in its title. It’s more portrait than landscape, and does not depict ‘a woman’ but many woman-like figures, which, as the title of another painting suggests, are Less Like Ourselves, More Like Eachother (2019). The pink fleshy body parts morph into the familiar motif of a horse, but made up of too many thighs, a tilted head, disjointed nipples, while every shadow verges on a pubic triangle. An interesting reference point for this picture (via the exhibition text, again) is the pentimenti of Velasquez’s equestrian portraits, which reveal how the figures were worked on and transformed, hooves moved around, legs adjusted. Here the ghost logic of the exhibition’s title emerges both within the painting – as the ricochet limbs are cast as provisional rather than surreal – and with the surroundings: the not-yet-here-ness of the checkerboard, and its special ability to be both hypervisible and not at all.
Ambera Wellmann’s problem is she knows too well how to give the audience what they want. Over the last two to three years her paintings have tended to hit just the right balance between obscene and alluring, familiar and deeply strange; her way of procuring the shiny, porcelain skin, the whirlpool blur of flesh quickly made for an unmistakable trademark – a kind of house style. I am generally a big fan of painting, and generally a big fan of Wellmann’s paintings, too. She is extremely good at what she does. But I also see how her queer-feminist art-historical considerations, and their mostly-pleasing, only just-displeasing-enough outcomes, could make a suffocating ring of hashtags around her practice. Add to that the ambivalence of a great market demand, and it’s no wonder we find the artist taking big swings, trying to escape the hashtag ambush.
In this context, what might first look like the installation aggressing on the paintings, taking away from them, making them somehow less enjoyable, might instead be read as a defence mechanism. There is no way to engage shallowly; you have to go close, and you have to stay there long. There is no way you could look at them and simply tick the boxes ‘female sexuality’, ‘body politics’, or ‘lesbian desire’ – you’d have to first get around ‘figure and ground’, you’d have to wonder: why the checkers, what are they doing?
There are other such bulwarks inside the paintings. In Scissoring and Half-Mother (both 2020), cutouts of fleshy-looking bits on plain raw canvas deny us the satisfaction of indexicality and topicality. Equally in The Logic of Ghosts (2020) Wellmann undercuts her own technical virtuosity when a face of Rococo-like elegance is flanked by parts that seem purposefully, if not parodically, rough or silly (a little cartoonish face, hovering pointlessly), achieving spectral evasiveness by way of nonchalance. In Landscape with a Figure of a Woman, it is possible that she takes the strategy too far, as a lack of density and detail makes for an overall unconvincing impression – or that protection or resistance contain also an element of resting on one’s laurels. With Glance (2020), however, Wellmann hits the bullseye (or eyes): on a bright red background a vase full of messy lines we’ve learned to understand as limbs, two gas blue flowers, and a stack of eight eyes, as if stolen from a pack of Cyclops. Here the blockbuster porcelain effect and flesh whirls are employed to a fresher end, closer to abstraction, to confusion, to breaking free of topicality, but without sacrificing dynamism and intensity. With only one eye, a cyclops cannot see depth. But what about with eight? Infinite depth? Or would that be an overkill, a nightmarish aubergine check-pattern? At her best, Wellmann asks serious questions about painting simply by making a great painting.