White Hole Splendour
Auckland artist Rohan Wealleans caps off a highly successful decade with a large show about wizards in Wellington, and a provocative collaboration with British artist Sarah Lucas in London.
In 2003 Rohan Wealleans won the Trust Waikato National Contemporary Art Award with To the Moon and Back, likened by judge Tobias Berger to a “huge bright vagina” that he wanted to crawl inside. Whether or not Wealleans intended the large yellow painting, with its layered skins of paint – flayed, curled and pinned back to reveal the flesh-coloured interior – to be interpreted thus is a moot point, but it certainly gave rise to a body of work in the past decade that has tiptoed around the murky shores of pornography and misogyny – but in the brashest, brightest, in-your-face fashion.
In his distinctive practice Wealleans utilises paint – buckets of it – layering objects, furniture, canvases, figures, in fact anything he can lay his hands on, with paint, paint and more paint. He then excavates into the acrylic substrate, slashing and cutting out forms and facets, peeling back flaps and lips to reveal the colourful geology within.
For the past decade Wealleans hasn’t looked back – Frances Hodgkins and McCahon residencies, winner of the Wallace Art Awards (and New York residency) in 2006, and more recently he scored the Aussie quinella with an invitation to Queensland Art Gallery’s sixth Asia Pacific Triennial in 2009 and the following year exhibited in the 17th Biennale of Sydney. And to keep the local art-lovers happy, he featured in City Gallery Wellington’s 2012 Winter Season with a critically acclaimed exhibition, Apocalyptic Intuition.
But to prove he’s no colonial one-trick pony, he’s just exhibited in London with uber-gallerist Sadie Coles in a collaborative show, White Hole, with YBA star, Sarah Lucas. His contribution? A wall-sized mural of three close-up photographs of what could euphemistically be called spreaders – the giant multi-coloured genitalia in question be-jewelled with Wealleans’ layered-paint vajazzle. Perhaps not a show for the faint-hearted, but you get the feeling Situation is not the sort of space you’d take your dear old gran to on a day’s sightseeing around London.
Wealleans explains how the opportunity arose: “I first met Sarah when she was out here for her show, Nuds, at Two Rooms in 2011. She came to my studio for a party one night when I was preparing for Apocalyptic Intuition, so there was a lot of work around to show her. I also showed her some of my sci-fi porno photos for my next show, [R18] Origins at Ivan Anthony, which she really liked.
At the end of her Two Rooms residency we exchanged works – she gave me two toilets and I gave her a wizard stick I’d seen her eyeing up in my studio. Around the time she left, I was arranging to take two girls to get brazilians, and then to a photo-shoot for the final works for Ivan’s show, so I only saw her briefly, thinking how awesome it had been to meet such a great artist and person. I thought that would be the end of it, but a few months later I emailed her with the photos I’d made the day she left, and she replied: “Great to hear from you… This year I’m doing a year-long project in a space above Sadie’s gallery. I’m calling it Situation – sort of an exhibition but changing all the time. I can incorporate other people and events; anything I like really… Perhaps you fancy coming over at some point. I could incorporate some of your pictures and perhaps we could do some wizardry of some sort?” So he travelled to London in August 2012 and based himself in Lucas’s Hackney townhouse (she now spends most of her time in her country house in Suffolk). He recalls, “Sarah came up a week after I arrived, and we started to talk over a bottle of cider about what we would do. Sarah wanted to keep it casual as her concept behind Situation was to see what ideas came to the surface once we talked about doing something together. As we talked, the phrase “white hole” came up, and we decided that would be the title for the show. We’d talked about what white holes were – the moon was one, for example. So we checked the calendar to see when the next full moon was and set the date for the opening party, just over two weeks away.”
On the opening night guests revelled in the lubricious conflation of Lucas’ idiosyncratic landscape – suspended toilet bowls, plaster kinky boots, AK-47s and her biomorphic stuffed tights, which she calls “nuds” cascading off pedestals – with Wealleans’ bejewelled and party-painted pussies up-close and personal on the gallery’s back wall. The response? Local critics and bloggers loved it – and in Jenny Turner’s otherwise pallid review of Naomi Wolf’s recent book Vagina: A New Biographyin The Guardian a few days after the opening, she tagged Wealleans works in White Hole as “magnificent”.
While Wealleans had been weaving his psychedelic wizardry on the other side of the world, his Apocalyptic Intuition exhibition at City Gallery Wellington was casting a similar spell locally.
The centrepieces were two tarted-up TV props – a giant head, The Psychosis Chamber of the Oracle, modelled on actor, the late Kevin Smith, from the set of Xena: Warrior Princess; and The Wizard of Forgotten Flesh, a statue of a sorcerer from another local television production, Legend of the Seeker. The giant head was layered in subtle tones and uncharacteristically unexcavated by Wealleans, but harking back to Berger’s unfulfilled wish to crawl inside Wealleans’ earlier work, gallery-goers could get inside this one, and lounge on white sheepskins while consulting a white-painted Bratz doll-oracle that was holding a crystal ball. The wizard, looking coolly sinister in a Gary Glitter-ish rhinestone jacket, welcomed visitors to the rest of the show – a series of 48 paintings, almost Wagnerian in their narrative sweep. In the book accompanying the exhibition, curator Aaron Lister wrote, “Like the mosaics or stained-glass windows of churches, the frames of a comic book, or the storyboards for a film, these paintings create a single narrative structure that tracks the journey of its hero and fleshes out his backstory… Wealleans loads apparently abstract paintings with narrative and fiction to transform the material substance of paint into a life-giving, generative one. Here he creates whole worlds through a process of ‘farming paint’, the building up and harvesting of living surfaces that grow, breathe and move.”
Asked how the exhibition arose, Wealleans says, “I’d found the two big pieces and thought, ‘Let’s do a show about wizards’. I started researching and getting the content. I don’t usually make work about men, so there were conscious changes, different feelings about the story – a story of a powerful man’s life.”
The images and quotes in the book chronicle the wizard’s journey from his conception, birth, abduction by aliens, wizardry and spell training through to the apocalyptic battle with his evil nemesis, his victory and eventual peace on earth. But we’re not talking about some twee Harry Potter versus Lord Voldemort story in paint here. Wealleans creates a reverse tabula rasa – his blank slates are already preloaded with concealed layers of colour – his own unique landscapes bubbling under, awaiting excavation by the artist.
“Ancient cultures created their art from what they had around them, the tools and materials dictating the aesthetic of the work. What I’m doing is also two steps back – creating the rock and then using it. Originally I didn’t know what I was getting until I started excavating. Now I’m more controlled and getting better at what I do. I change the composition about 15 layers before the end so I can use the ridges and play little games. But looking back at what I was doing ten years ago, I’m jealous of my old works. You could tell I didn’t always know what I was doing – now the rawness isn’t there it’s getting more complicated.”
Complicated or not Wealleans’ virtuosity with paint and blade shine through in the wall works. Seemingly random whorls of excavated colour reveal hands, faces, orifices, blades, explosions, heat and cold, light and dark. The seemingly chaotic laying-on of paint is excised, scraped, pinned and carved to reveal miniature jewels, iridescent pools of light, and tiny facets of brilliant colour.
Wealleans saw out 2012 with a joint exhibition with jeweller Karl Fritsch at Ivan Anthony in Auckland, and this year he shows no sign of slowing down. He currently has a show with a Boston dealer, which came about as a result of contacts he made while in Britain. Later this year he has two dealer shows in Wellington and Auckland, and his work will be included in group shows at The Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland and The Suter in Nelson. He has been invited to show work in a group exhibition in New York. And recently he purchased an old McDonalds restaurant playground, including large models of Grimace and the Hamburglar tower, and a seemingly endless supply of paint. More wizardry ahead. /Dan Chappell