Kellie Wells: Embellir, 2006.
Simon Maidment & Vikki McInnes, Australian curators, essay for Move on Asia 2007.
We observe a woman through the camera lens as she might regard herself in a mirror. Her facial features are rendered neutral by thickly applied white make-up and, as Embellir begins, she wraps a white towel around her head to conceal her hair. Utterly absorbed though she is in this process of preparation, small gestures of self-reassurance reveal she is, in fact, aware that her private, narcissistic space has been interrupted. The performance herein mimics a beauty ritual – an act of ‘becoming’ that carries implications of both sexual allure and self-reflection. The grotesque nature of its unfolding, however, acknowledges the assertion of radical feminist thought that Western beauty practices such as the wearing of make-up are misogynistic and might be understood as perpetuating the subordination of women under patriarchy.
Kellie Wells’ work is certainly imbued with a keen regard for her feminist precursors. Embellir most particularly evokes Facial Cosmetic Variations (1972) – photographs of performative gestures by Ana Mendieta, which extended late 1960s body art experimentation into stark yet theatrical examinations of female identity. In these works, Mendieta altered her physical appearance using costumes, make-up and props, constructing a number of feminine personae. In one work she obliterated her appearance, squashing her face behind a nylon stocking; in another she wrapped her own long, wet hair around her face to distort her features. In a similar fashion, Wells ritualistically marks her face with black eyeliner pencil before wrapping cotton thread (with its inescapable reference to women’s craft practices) tightly around her face, marring and transforming her features.
Of course early feminist activity distinguished between women practitioners’ use of their own bodies in performance work (highlighting the relationship to body art) and performances that were informed by feminist theory and critique. In the 21st century, feminism continues to be relevant and necessary as a continually evolving body of thought and action that takes as its subject lived experience, psychological, social and cultural constructions. Responding to these feminist considerations, Wells creates a work that merges both positions. Moreover, she also engages performance works by Mike Parr – updating and feminising famous projects by one of Australia’s leading male practitioners.
Embellir (along with other related work by Wells) refers to Parr’s Rules and displacement activities of the 1970s. These body actions – structured by some three hundred instructions that Parr wrote for himself and has systematically carried out – often involved testing the limits of bodily endurance and the mind’s capacity to control the situation. Actions included holding his hand over a flame, pushing drawing pins into his leg and wrapping elastic bands around his face. It has been argued that Parr’s predetermined instructions and calculated testing of mind/body limitations make the works more scientific than expressive. As such, these actions might be seen as experiments with reality rather than theatrical performances. The ambiguous nature of Embellir offers equally pluralistic readings, loaded as it is with symbolic and social imperative.
The subjectivity and transformation of the artist’s own body in this work relates to the ‘mask of femininity’ so often invoked in feminist discourse. Wells re-imagines a performative space, incorporating historical as well as critical perspectives, from which to make-up, create and perform.
Vikki McInnes and Simon Maidment October 2007.
Born Launceston, Tasmania, Australia. Lives and works Melbourne, Australia.
2005 – 2007 Bachelor of Fine Art (Drawing), Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne.
2003 – 2004 Diploma Visual Arts, RMIT, Melbourne.
1990 – 1994 Bachelor of Arts: Political Science/Women’s Studies, University of Tasmania, Hobart.
Selected Group Exhibitions
Wallara Travelling Scholarship, VCA Gallery, Melbourne.
Inches Per Second, Loop Project Space, City Library, Federation Square, Melbourne.
Horse Bazaar Digital Prize, Horse Bazaar, Melbourne.
Recent Works, A Space Gallery NMIT, Melbourne.
Pigs Fly, VCA Student Gallery, Melbourne.
Pleasantries, Alliance Français Melbourne.
PROUD2006, VCA Gallery, Melbourne.
Linden Postcard Show, Linden Gallery, Melbourne.
PROUD, VCA Gallery, Melbourne.
Definitions of Drawing, VCA Student Gallery, Melbourne.
Diploma Visual Arts Graduate Show, The Foundry Gallery, Melbourne.
Couch ART, AREA Gallery, Melbourne.