Rohan Wealleans

Disciple of the Pearl

I first started thinking of paint as a weighty physical material at the end of my first year at Art School. In preparation for the final exhibitions, everything received a frenzied application of white acrylic to banish the year’s smears and splatters and gallerise the institution. This was an annual procedure; the school shrank year by year, its rooms dwindling, diminishing minutely with every thick and gloopy layer of smoothing, redeeming, neutralizing white paint.

Auckland artist Rohan Weallean’s work realizes just this bulk, the skins of his works drip with layer upon layer of bright acrylic housepaint. His paintings and sculptures use paint not so much as a medium, but as a substance, a material. The heavy, layered coats get whittled and carved, sliced back and pasted together again with yet more paint. There is an object in Wealleans studio that is a kind of totem to his methodology. Years ago, it started life as a speck of paint. Thousands of coats later, it is a lump the size of a kid’s inflatable beach ball, bubbling with surface accretions and heavy as a cannonball.

There is a weird beauty about Weallean’s works, with their orifices and oozings, their often lurid colours, their strange mix of the chemical and the natural. Grown layer by layer, they have something of the quality of tree rings or coral or toenails, but their slightly rubbery, slick and highly coloured surfaces are definitely industrial. While Wealleans romances the idea of the organic (one of a series of hanging sculptures is called Disciple of the Pearl), he reconciles it with the synthetic by describing his creations as natural extensions of alien worlds – abundant but potentially dangerous life forms. Planet Spore, made in 2004 for the Botanic Gardens in Christchurch is, like other large-scale works, carved from polystyrene with a shell of fiberglass before being daubed with many layers of paint. A lurid shade of electric chartreuse, embellished with circles of shallow cuts, it is a huge cartoon eyeball landed on the lawn, a demon seed. The hanging works Tingler and Disciple of the Pearl resemble pregnant bellies or lumpen punchbags or perhaps great tears of paint. Cups and funnels above the sacs imply that they are formed by dripping, like stalactites. Nostril-like holes suggest a breathing presence, or perhaps portals for a giant colony of iridescent wasps. Eater of Worlds, a recent work on paper, is clustered with cones and flakes of paint that form bright scaly swarms like oysters on a rock, or leave brilliant trails as they squelch limpet-like across the page.

The surfaces of paintings and objects are slit, scooped and gouged out with a craft knife. The sharp straight blade makes slightly ragged incisions, chipping out intricate patterns. Cuts into the paintings’ surface evoke the drillings and slashings of Lucio Fontana, but rather than revealing a space beyond the work’s surface, Wealleans’ incisions expose their innards. His ritual guttings of paintings owe something too, to Viennese Actionist Hermann Nitsch’s orgiastic meat festivals, drawing on the same nostalgia for gory primitive rites, but here everything is a plasticized replica, and the blood is pure acrylic.

There is violence to the work, but is bright, cartoonish and splattery. Horrorgami are layered paper works that burst out of horror movie posters, eclipsing the original scary creatures. The Horrorgami are constructed by analogy to the sliced paintings: many layers of paper or neoprene are slashed and peeled back, erupting out of the work’s top layer like toothy fringed mouths: monstrous, unclassifiable, consuming. Many are adorned with scales of paint from other works, pasted together with more oozing acrylic. Wealleans describes how in his work, “everything feeds off itself”. This is often literally true; refuse from one painting is recycled into the next, and the works themselves look as if they could end up gnawing on one another if left unsupervised.

In his search for forms and iconographies, Wealleans wades unabashed into murky and contested realms. He relishes the awkward and commericialised aspects of tribal art, lolling in faux primitivism. A favourite stand-by of modernism (from Dada and Picasso on in), wholesale appropriation of ‘primitive’ indigenous cultures is now inevitably heavily freighted with questions of power relations. For Albino, a 2004 exhibition with Frances Upritchard (another enthusiast for shabby ethnographies), Wealleans invented a fake Polynesian tribe replete with ceremonial regalia and the ritual sacrifice of paintings that disgorged streams of acrylic as he sliced them open. In a culture sensitive to appropriation and indigeneity, the question of exploitation or homage is never quite settled with Wealleans. When challenged, the artist disingenuously detaches himself from the work, or points to the all-consuming incorporations of popular culture as a model. But this reappropriation of an appropriation remains questionable when the ancestors on display belong to someone else – when the artist is part of the dominant culture, enjoying the privilege and concomitant transparency of identity that implies ¬– when the artist can be an artist unexplained and un-hyphenated.

So clearly a devotee of the shonky archetype, Wealleans has his own creation myths: the story of how his cut and layered work was spurred by an original windfall of mistinted housepaint; his winning of the Waikato Art Award with a work commended by judge Tobias Berger as a ‘bright pink vagina’; his identical twin brother crashing into the opening of his show In the Shadow of the Beast in a yeti suit and marauding the punters; the rumour that he’s not a Pakeha, a white guy, but an albino Polynesian.

Wealleans spent 2005 at Otago University in Dunedin as the Frances Hodgkins Fellow. A major product of that year was Tatunka (Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Roslyn Oxley9). The show was another cross-cultural encounter, this time loosely referencing the film Dances with Wolves, a mainstream Hollywood attempt to deal in a balanced way with the old Cowboy and Indian trope. Giant dreamcatchers fill the gallery, casting spidery shadows, while Ennio Morricone’s theme music to spaghetti westerns play in the background. Originally an Ojibwa charm protecting sleeping children from bad dreams by filtering out nightmares, this Native American form has long been commercialised and co-opted by New Age crystal- and dolphin-lovers. Weallean’s dreamcatchers are huge, adorned with baby rattles, beads, fishing buoys, neoprene streamers, and, in one instance, a paint-dipped badminton racquet. Wealleans describes their origin in a desire to make paintings out of string. They thread together a miscellany of objects, a kind of dream flotsam snared and coated in dripping acrylic.

Along with his ethnographic raiding trips, Wealleans plunders the back-catalogue of feminist art. His ongoing fascination with central core imagery is well known. But Wealleans’ gashes and slits are not the glazed porcelain vulval arabesques of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party; they are more like the toothy orifices of an Alien movie, cheery coloured vagina dentata.

Figurative paintings form another strand of Wealleans’ practice (which he explains by claiming he needs something to do while the layers of paint are drying). In King Fisher (2007), a recent show at the Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland, women with snaky hair and orgasmic expressions. Stringing around these images are strands of emoticons, the sketchy faces a shorthand of eyes and mouths, a wordless language. Radiating and tessellating across the paintings is a toothy vulval shape. The smoothed and stylized repeated form is perhaps best described as a vesica piscis: a cunt-, but also eye- or fish-like form often used in Christian iconography in relation to the Virgin Mary. It’s argued the vesica piscis’ association with Mary represents an incorporation of earlier goddess cults. In Conception of the Priestess of the Bush a koru, a spiraling parade of brightly coloured exotic animals is presided over by a come-hither princess. She is a goddess giving birth to the world, but she and the other dark-haired women in these works reveal their porn magazine origins with their theatrical expressions of ecstasy – mimes of pleasure with an eye on the paying customer. Wealleans’ works share a second-wave feminist fascination with a female sexuality marginalized by the history of western art, but the brightly patterned come-hither stylings reapply just that male gaze which feminists critique.

Most disturbingly, from the show PEGD (Hamish McKay, 2005), Maid (2005) is an armless, legless female figure suspended in front of a painting adorned with a swarm of peeled-apart, lippy cuts. The figure is a cross between a hanged man and a parti-coloured Venus of Willendorf, a fetish with a vulval opening sliced into its centre. Like the Paleolithic Venus, Maid is faceless, but clearly sexed. Part of the same exhibition, Maiden is a similar, but more powerful standing figure, looming in the centre of the gallery in a white, low-cut, sci-fi styled frock, like some haughty alien empress. The dress and the bald ‘do in this instance recall the glamourous alien cyborg played by Persis Khambatta, former Miss India, in the first Star Trek film (1979), her beauty swathed in layers of intergalactic exoticism. There is both pleasure and danger in the works, a flirtation with the monstrous feminine.

In PEGD (or Planet Earth Geology Department), sedimentary layers of paint are the subjects of an alien geological survey. The gallery is full of chunks carved out of previous works, scooped-out hunks individually bagged, gridded and framed on the walls. Line drawings record each piece’s layering and individual craggy shape. Ranked clipboards full of computer drawings enumerate further details. The taxonomy is painstaking, ridiculous: it foregrounds process. Layering up these works takes time: typically a day per coat, of which there may be hundreds. A visit to Wealleans’ studio reveals a roomful of objects covered in that day’s colour, a kind of charcoal grey. By inserting his work into the extended scale of geological time, Wealleans emphasizes the duration embedded in their surfaces: they record their own histories.

The picture plane often gets treated as mysterious landscape, an adventure playground. Layered chunks of paint emerge from the works’ surfaces like weathered rock formations. Wealleans describes the complexities of finding the forms and motifs embedded within the works, the difficulty of imagining his surfaces in reverse, building up layers of paint to excavate later on. Rocococococo (2004) bulges with forms, some resembling garlands of eyeballs, one volcano-like, and all bedded out like a garden in bloom. Paintings and sculptures are often adorned with Wilma Flintstone-style beads made from lumps of paint or faceted gems gummed together out of left-over skins from the bottom of pails. The ironically precious strands connect forms, looping out of the picture plane, or dangling loosely from sculptures. Glossy, lumpy ceramics from the show In the Shadow of the Beast bear strings of beads and paint chips threading in and out of holes and prongs, like dressing-table trinkets from another planet.

There is a formal curiosity driving the work, pleasure in making paint behave in spooky and unaccustomed ways. Wealleans has a clear fascination with his material, remarking: “I think a painting is the hardest thing to look at”. His imagined rituals and willful misrecognitions seem generated out of desire to conceive and construct things on the edge of the unknown. This search for objects on the border of unrecognisablility is perhaps one motivation for Wealleans’ reappropriation of the tribal objects repurposed by the colonial imagination. Part of the lure and the fascination of these artifacts are their formal qualities. They are objects made in entirely new ways, objects based on entirely different sets of premises and fashioned with alien expertise. Science fiction too participates in this politic of exoticism, discovery and conquest, but its fascination lies in this desire for estrangement, in its attempts to imagine and describe cultures and creatures constructed according to a completely different set of assumptions. It’s not easy to talk about Weallean’s work for the same reason it evokes a genuine wonder at the possibilities of painting. His works are aliens from the planet of paint.

First published in Eyeline Issue 65, Summer 2007/8