Rachel Wells studied at the University of Cambridge (MA, English) and the Courtauld Institute of Art, London (MA, PhD, History of Art). She was Henry Moore Foundation Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Courtauld, and subsequently Tutor in Fine Art (History and Theory) at the University of Oxford, before joining the department at Newcastle as Lecturer in Art History and Theory in 2011. Her research encompasses modern and contemporary art: recent work has focused upon contemporary sculpture and photography, and the relationship between the two, with a particular interest in the issue of scale.
Wells’s authored book on Scale in Contemporary Sculpture (Ashgate Publishing, 2013) is the first to propose a theorised account of the recent trend for enlargement, miniaturisation and the life-size in sculpture since the late 1980s. The study brings together a new group of recent artworks spanning sculpture, installation and photography, and proposes new definitions of ‘scale’ and ‘size’, by relating each term to differences of quantity and quality respectively. This novel framework, supported by a detailed analysis of Bergson and Deleuze’s writings on difference, is used as a motor for the rest of the discussion. The book argues that the recent artistic address of scale should be considered within the interlinked cultural and socio-historical framework of postmodern theory and the growth of global capitalism. Within this context, the book proposes an original interpretation of the identified artistic phenomenon as a reassertion of the importance of qualitative and external difference in the construction of meaning.
Other recent publications include a discussion of Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s Quiet Afternoon photographs in a Special Issue of the journal Art History entitled The Clever Object (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013). The issue, also published as a stand-alone book, is the result of a Courtauld Institute cross-period research group, proposing a new art historical methodology of the ‘Clever Object’. The research examines the kinds of thinking that objects enable or constrain, and reconsiders the aesthetic objects privileged by art historians. Contrary to much existing literature that views Fischli/Weiss’s work as postmodern in nature, and as more philosophical and whimsical than materialist, Wells’s article offers a new insight into their practice as resistant to both Baudrillard’s postmodern theory of the ‘clever object’, and the exchangeability that enables capitalism. In doing so, the article contributes to knowledge of the artists’ practice, to existing thought about how Baudrillard’s theory can be used to discuss contemporary art, and to the significance of the methodology of the ‘Clever Object’.
Wells’s research into scale continued with an analysis of Thomas Ruff’s Jpeg series in the book The Versatile Image: Photography, Digital Technologies and the Internet (Leuven University Press, 2013). Her essay, entitled Digital Scale: Enlargement and Intelligibility in Thomas Ruff’s Jpeg Series offers an original reading of Ruff’s work, and a broader argument about the relationship between digital images, the media, and war. In particular, the essay contextualises Ruff's series within his wider practice in order to consider the implications of the acquisition of Jpeg ny02 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a commemorative artwork for victims of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. Drawing upon important recent writing by Judith Butler, Retort, Susan Sontag and Hito Steyerl, the essay considers the relationship between the digital image and memory, the nature of using artwork to commemorate and in some way resist what has been described as a 'war of images', and the impact of digital photography in the reporting of conflict.
Contemporary approaches towards digital photography are also addressed in Wells’s examination of Wolfgang Weileder’s recent photographic and sculptural projects in the book Wolfgang Weileder: Continuum (Kerber Verlag, 2013). The essay argues that the implication of Weileder’s projects - that conventional photography no longer conveys a Benjaminian sense of 'space-crossed time' - should be viewed within the socio-historical context diagnosed as ‘time-space compression’ by David Harvey and the ‘acceleration of the instant’ by Paul Virilio. Within this context, Weileder’s ‘constructive’ photography suggests that the contemporary capitalist culture of the instant image is producing a form of illiteracy in experiencing and understanding the nexus between time and space. Weileder’s installations foreground a mapping of space and time onto each other, often emphasised through an insistent connection between duration and the life-size, rather than Virilio’s concern at the ‘infinitely big of historicity’ or the ‘infinitely small of instantaneity’. Throughout his oeuvre, Weileder constructs a contemporary conception of space-crossed time that, in unmasking the distractions of instantaneous ‘creative’ images, offers unsentimental reference points for locating our own spatiotemporal condition.
Wells’s current research interests expand upon this previous work. Her research into the impact and effects of scale has continued with a recent investigation into Henry Moore’s late large-scale sculpture in the context of a Cold War sense of scale, commissioned by Tate in 2013. Her consideration of the impact of globalisation on contemporary art production and reception has also developed into a current project examining the address of responsibility within contemporary art.