Yelena Yemchuk, Mabel, Betty & Bette

JTF (only facts): Published 2021 by Kominek Books (here). Thin cover, 23 x 29 cm, 148 pages, triple fold. Includes texts by Jelena Yachuk and Sarah Vanderbeek. In edition of 500 copies. Design by Alex Wedren, Boereau New York. (Cover and post the shots below.)

Comments/Context: Spending time with Lilina Yamchuk’s photo book Mabel, Betty, and Pete It is a strangely confusing experience. At first, the book seems like a compendium of images of women in fuzzy retro wigs and clothes, in a hybrid fashion photography and role-playing game. But then things get mixed up – does the same woman wear different wigs and play different roles? Or are there literally dozens of women playing the same person? As the pages are turned, the sense of order quietly collapses, leaving us in a dreamlike state where the real and the imagined become deliberately and uncomfortable interchangeable.

As its title might suggest, Mabel, Betty, and Pete It is the story of three women, each created by Yamchuck, with distinctive hair and a short, ephemeral background. Mabel has flowy blonde hair, an unsettling story about lost trains, and muddled (and possibly doubly) identities. Betty has blonde hair shorter than her forehead and a bewildering haircut to take a postcard from and trip over a giant ewe. And the brunette Pitt is hazy worried about arriving in time for her stage performance.

The Three Women’s Story debuted as a movie (screened at the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Arts in April 2019), and images from the film appear here as horizontally oriented still images (in full margins, pairs, and groups of four). The work was filmed in Ukraine (the artist’s home) and has the same actress performing all three roles, albeit in a different wig, so some of the misidentification confusions present in the project are rooted in this 3D design.

The sequence of still images overlaps the three stories, so almost instantly, the characters overlap and overlap. The picture book begins with three textual backgrounds, and the film’s plot turns these loose notes into a screenplay of sorts. Many of the close-ups feature Rainer Fassbinder-style stop magic, where extreme touches of makeup, bright lighting, and color themes give individual stories and secluded moments an elusive, dream-like quality. Exhaustion, confusion, and faceless alienation are the common mood, with different women (or the same woman if you prefer) struggling to make sense of their circumstances, and few shots heading toward the embellished woman in the distress of Alex Prager’s photos, albeit in a more strident European style.

Walks then goes on to amplify the confusion further by painting portraits of several women in Mabel, Betty, and Betty wigs, the number of different women appearing to top 50. These portraits are carefully arranged and oriented vertically, thus providing a counterpoint to the film’s more cinematic shots. In general, women are seen on a blank face (leaving open possibilities for anxiety, longing, despair, boredom, and other emotions), in elegant tall looks with high heels, in places ranging from flashy interiors to stadiums, restaurants, backyards, and everything in between. Furs, trench coats, swimwear, shorts, nightgowns, and robes in a dizzying variety of elegant patterns offer alternative clothing options, and suddenly the three selected title characters multiply to become every woman, making the mysterious experiences of the original three seem even more so. Universally applicable. Each play’s character hovers on the edge of uncomfortable weirdness, leaving us wondering what could have happened in these polite or predictable moments.

Yemchuk has also included a number of intricate collages, which blend images of Hollywood glamor with pinups, soft nudes, and feminine symbols through the ages. Each collage of women is a mixture of styles, influences and interruptions, from the chaste to the provocative, then their mixed characters interact with and play with images of their walk, expanding the archetypes and standards of femininity.

As the pages are turned in a picture book, we repeatedly switch between these variations (movie stills, stage images, and collages), blurring the lines between different types of aesthetic construction, as connected by the echo of a gesture, pose, or facial expression (not to mention the Hairstyle). In a sense, all of these images depicting women find them hovering on the edge of a ruse, where conceptions of the self are deliberately created, only to make those controlled plans fade into a dream-like flow.

While Yemchuk’s female worlds often feel pretentious and thoughtful, her overt play does not mask a constant undercurrent of vulnerability. The three fictional characters of Mabel, Betty, and Bette are tried, disposed of, and re-inhabited, but they never offer a stable balance. It’s this constant, unsettling tension that makes Walking’s illustrated book so memorable, making us guess who these women really are.

POV collector: Yelena Yemchuk does not appear to have a consistent exhibition representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors will likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

Leave a Comment