The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue
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Like other artists I’ve spoken to, the weeks that have passed in isolation—witnessing from a distance the deaths of thousands and the utter bureaucratic failure of the government to protect the most vulnerable people—have understandably led to an unrecognizable feeling of listlessness in the studio. Our global pause extends into all areas of our life, and in this period of de-growth, “progress” and “productivity” in the studio seem facile, even selfish. Without any exhibitions in the foreseeable future, I’ve been thinking about what it means to continue making physical art without the physical art world. It’s a bit like a collapsed building with a once-elegant facade, and without any walls, you’re left looking at the remains of its foundation, wondering what it contains that’s substantial enough to build upon. This pause allows us to examine our practices as they relate to a system in a rare moment of suspension: without mobility, we have an opportunity to observe how things look when they are standing still. 

Ambera Wellmann, <em>The Nose</em>, 2018, 20.5
Ambera Wellmann, The Nose, 2018, 20.5" x 19", oil on Linen. Courtesy of the artist.

I’ve been thinking about all of us living inside. More than ever, it affirms for me the importance of painting as a physical experience. I was always a little brokenhearted that a majority of viewers would only ever see paintings through an online format of documentation. Despite its inherent 2D nature, the smallest nuances of a painting seen in person are crucial to really knowing it, intimately: I always insist that paintings are watched, not looked at, and that their physicality necessitates a time-based experience. Paintings are also a place, a site; people congregate there. 

I found that your questions about translation are so compelling to me, Daisy, in this moment as a chance to (try to) articulate what might be at the core of our practices and processes when the facade of the art world is stripped away. In this context of a global pandemic, I think we are questioning not only what aspects of experience we want to translate or are worth translating to create meaning, but also how translation makes our experiences meaningful. The process, in this sense, is infinitely more valuable than the product.

For several years I was making paintings based on very personal experiences of erotic and emotional encounters. Very simply, the paintings were catalyzed by being in love. But questions arose of how to translate this emotion, translate it sensitively, and how to translate the specifics of a physical encounter into a physical encounter for the viewer. Why was the specific medium of painting an appropriate container? How could it give form to a feeling, and feeling to a form?  How can emotion live inside of—and translate all of its complexities—in a non-living substance? Emotional experience necessitates a body, and everybody is culturally unique. A quick conversation with Frieda affirmed that language will in some way always be inadequate—even a barrier to understanding the unique experience of love—and for that reason translation is an impossibility. What tastes salty to me may not be salty for you, just as asking, “How are you feeling today,” is completely different and cannot encompass the complexity of, “How does your heart beat today,” or, “How is your wind,” in another language. Painting is an apt medium for translation because of its inadequacy: there is an inherent sense of lack in trying to transpose a three-dimensional world in two dimensions—feeling into form—but the gap between image and language is so fruitful. Paint is, quite literally, fluid: I move it from place to place and erase it, a lot. It exhibits the signs of its own failure, it evidences what was impossible to translate and in doing so, opens a new kind of space.

So like you, Daisy, I am interested in the labor and process of translation itself, and the opportunities that arise from its impossibility: not what is lost in translation but gained. Translation may be impossible, but maybe it's possible to translate its impossibility. 

I came across a word recently—catachresis—which is to deliberately use a word in a way that is not correct. It’s considered a mistake in language but has the power to change the meanings of words through misuse. It seemed to be the perfect word to describe my own deliberate misuse of objects, animals, human bodies, and space in my work; to try and redefine a pictorial language or, at the very least, resist the rules that govern the pictorial language of historical painting from which I often glean. I don’t simply endeavor to translate personal experience, but to locate and understand it in the context of patriarchy and within a syntax of existing pictorial language as a feminist artist. Whew! The result of my painterly catachresis has been an illogical or irrational pictorial space, an indeterminate number of bodies, genders, species… without hierarchy. An impossible body allows us to consider what is possible, to consider potentiality. I am always looking for the moment in which things become impossible, either figuratively or spatially, but which still register in a way that makes formal sense. This uncertainty is a form of intimacy (something unrecognizable is, oddly, the place in which we can recognize ourselves the most). Likewise, an apple sliced in half with its seeds pointing downward like tears can portray the same emotional weight as sexual rejection. This recognition is a kind of intimacy. Or when a mark strikes a delicate balance between being an arm and a foot at the same time, but is also just a mark; misunderstanding and conflict are ways toward intimacy. What they share is an openness, or the space they try and provide for the other half of translation: interpretation. I am not trying to translate or universalize my experience, rather, I want to create a space in which a viewer can interpolate an experience of their own, to see what else is possible.


Ambera Wellmann

is an artist based between Berlin (Germany) and Mexico city (Mexico).


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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