Ambera Wellmann is a Canadian oil painter currently living and working in Berlin. Her paintings exist somewhere within a flattened timeline, feeling at once firmly contemporary and inherently historical. Exploring both formal and thematic elements, her painstakingly painted porcelain figures constructed through collaging of disparate source material explore notions of femininity, feminism and the uncanny. Following her Guelph MFA, Ambera has participated in a number of solo and group exhibitions including a recent solo exhibition at Trépanier Baer Gallery in Calgary, and a two-person exhibition with Shary Boyle at Suzanne Biederberg Gallery in Amsterdam. You can find Ambera’s work in the coming months in Trépanier Baer’s booth at Art Toronto and a solo show “Weird Woman” curated by Sondra Meszaro in New York.
I initially moved to Berlin after receiving the Joseph Plaskett Award, which allows you to move to Europe for a year on this endowment. They give it to one painting student every year in Canada. I chose Berlin because it’s close to the Museum of Meissen Art which is a porcelain museum.
It’s also just central. I‘ve been traveling throughout Europe since I got here, it’s cheap, and there’s a lot of Canadians here so it’s easy to assimilate. I’m renewing my visa and I’ll stay for at least another year, hopefully more. It’s tough for me in Canada because so much of the work I look at and respond to is historical, I don’t have physical access to a lot of the painting that speaks to me.
I go to the studio virtually every day. I get there in the afternoon. Recently I’ve started drawing before I start painting which I’ve never done before. I’ll try as often as I can to draw from my imagination and then I start painting until one or two o’clock in the morning, I’ve become a nighthawk. I try and work on two or three paintings at once because changes or shifts that occur in one painting will resurface in another painting, the way I wanted them to.
I like being alone in the studio, for sure. I’ll listen to one album on repeat for like six hours or I’ll put on a movie that I know, one that I’ve seen a hundred times. I need something that’s present but I can ignore. It’s about having a rhythm that you can work to. I tried to do without for a while because it can influence whether or not you think the painting is successful, like if the music’s upbeat I’ll think the painting’s going well even if it’s not; but ultimately, I find it useful to listen to something that makes me feel emotive while painting.
Sometimes when I get to the studio I’ll take a photograph, and because I didn’t draw for a long time that was a way to get the ball rolling. I started my Instagram account to provide relief for myself during my MFA, and it’s because of Instagram that humour is finding its way back into my paintings, although it’s dark humour. I’ve had an interest in the uncanny my entire life. It’s funny to make something look like breasts or an ass crack, but eroticism or attraction depends on existing sets of knowledge that surround that desire. Reading Mike Kelly’s uncanny essay kind of changed my practice. The uncanny is all about sex and death. I just love that stuff.
I have my fun, but right now I’m really tired of my Instagram account. It’s so dangerous because it tells you what’s popular as soon as you make it, then you’re automatically convinced to make more of what works. You’re engaged in a social activity that’s seductive and powerful and ego-based.
Instagram metres everything for you right away, paintings are more generous in the sense of time. You can sit with it in the studio for weeks. You might make something and like it and then as soon as someone walks into the room, oh my god it’s a bad painting. Suddenly it’s like your genitals are out.
My advisors when I was doing my MFA, would say ‘Ambera you have to stop destroying your paintings’. I would paint something and then two weeks later be like ‘It’s garbage!’ and keep working on it. I would wreck what were probably good paintings. They’re so much like people. When you spend too much time with them, they start to get on your nerves, and if you spend time away, you miss them.
I’ve been working with porcelain for the past two years as a subject for painting. I had painted a picture of a sink during my MFA, and it had an underpainting on it that I painted over that ended up bleeding through. The sort of porcelain surface of this sink had a way of hosting this stain underneath that allowed me to think about figure/ground relationships.
My research has focused a lot on how porcelain is a feminized material, how it’s been used, and its full power and mythology. I’m always looking for how you can find a contemporary moment in a historical object because they resonate really powerfully for me. I gravitate to historical painting and I’m interested in their significance in understanding feminism and the trajectory of feminism.
The sink had two holes instead of faucets so it had an anthropomorphic quality. I just started to think that painting a surrogate for the body is more powerful than painting the body itself in some ways because there’s a sense of allegory. You can do things that are sexual or violent to a surrogate that are too literal for a human body, that become corny in a painting.
My work does have a sense of temporal homelessness, but I do think it’s possible for a work to engage the specificity of its own time through the material. or the way that, to translate that emotion into something formal so that it does stay kind of relevant. Sometimes I feel like speaking in defence of realism but I don’t want to be seen as old fashioned or traditional. I think that I’m just interested in artists who engaged in realism during periods of intense social, technologic and political transformation as a way of self-understanding. I approach realism from a feminist perspective with those ideals in mind. I think women are working with inherited images of themselves right now. We are figuring out how to apprehend our own sexuality, taking the eroticism that has challenged and described us and finding ways to make it our own.
——Ambera Wellmann, as told to Studio Beat
Photos & interview by Jessica Baldanza