Yelena Yemchuk, Mabel, Betty & Bette

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Kominek Books (here). Softcover, 23 x 29 cm, 148 pages with 3 gate-folds. Includes texts by Yelena Yemchuck and Sara VanDerBeek. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Alex Wiederin, Buero New York. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Spending time with Yelena Yemchuk’s photobook Mabel, Betty & Bette is a strangely disorienting experience. At first, the book feels like a compendium of portraits of women in vaguely retro wigs and outfits, in the manner of a hybrid fashion shoot and role playing game. But then things get confused – is that the same woman wearing different wigs and playing different roles? Or are there literally dozens of women playing the same person? As the pages turn, the sense of order quietly breaks down, leaving us in a dream-like state where the real and the imagined become deliberately and uncomfortably interchangeable.

As its title might imply, Mabel, Betty & Bette is the story of three women, each created by Yemchuk to have a signature hair style and a short ephemeral backstory. Mabel has flowy blond hair and a disconcerting story of missed trains and confused (and perhaps doubled) identities. Betty has shorter blond hair blown back from her forehead and a puzzling story of receiving a postcard from herself and tripping over a giant sheep. And Bette is a brunette with foggy anxiety about arriving in time for her theater performance.

Yemchuk’s story of the three women first took form as a film (which was shown at the Dallas Contemporary Museum in April 2019), and images from the film reappear here as horizontally-oriented stills (in full spreads, pairings, and groups of four). The work was filmed in Ukraine (the artist’s home country) and has the same actress playing all three roles, albeit in different wigs, so some of the mistaken identity confusions found in the project are rooted in this three-in-one design.

The sequencing of the stills interleaves the three stories, so almost immediately, the personas get jumbled and overlapped. The photobook begins with three text backgrounders, and the plot of the film turns these loose notes into a screenplay of sorts. Many of the close-ups have a Rainer Fassbinder-style halting glamour, where extremes of makeup, bright lighting, and color themes give the individual stories and solitary moments an elusive dream-like quality. Exhaustion, confusion, and blank-faced alienation are the common moods, with the various women (or the same woman if you prefer) struggling to make sense of their circumstances, and a few of the stills edge toward the stylized woman-in-distress imagery of Alex Prager, albeit with a sharper edge of European style.

Yemchuk then goes to amplify the disorientation further by making portraits of various women in the three Mabel, Betty, and Bette wigs, the number of different women apparently topping 50. These portraits are all carefully staged and vertically-oriented, and so provide a counterpoint to the more cinematic film stills. In general, the women are seen blank faced (leaving open possibilities of anxiety, longing, despair, boredom, and other emotions), in stylishly leggy looks with high high heels, in settings that range from gaudy interiors to playgrounds, restaurants, backyards, and everything in between. Furs, trench coats, swimsuits, rompers, nightgowns, and robes in a dizzying variety of chic styles provide alternate dress up options, and suddenly the three specific title characters have been multiplied out become everywoman, making the mysterious trials of the original three seem more universally applicable. Each staged figure hovers on the uncomfortable edge of strangeness, leaving us to wonder just what might have been happening in these mannered or projected moments.

Yemchuk has also included a number of intricate photocollages, which mix together images of Hollywood glamour with pinups, softcore nudes, and female symbols across the ages. Each collaged woman is an amalgamation of styles, influences, and interruptions, from the chaste to the provocative, and their hybrid personas then interact with and play off Yemchuk’s photographs, broadening the archetypes and standards for femininity.

As the pages in the photobook flip, we repeatedly switch between these variations (film stills, staged portraits, and collages), resulting in a blurring of the lines between the different types of aesthetic construction, as connected by an echo of gesture, pose, or facial expression (not to mention hairstyle). In a sense, all of these portrayals of women find them hovering on the edge of artifice, where notions of self are deliberately created, only to have those controlled plans dissolve into a dream-like flow.

While Yemchuk’s female worlds often feel stilted and contrived, their overt theatricality doesn’t mask a consistent undercurrent of vulnerability. The three fictional personals of Mabel, Betty, and Bette are tried on, discarded, and re-inhabited, but they never quite offer stable equilibrium. It is this consistent uneasy tension that makes Yemchuk’s photobook memorable, keeping us guessing as to who these women really might be.

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

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