Rohan Wealleans: Tribal Colours - Art Collector

Issue 62, October - December 2012

In cutting into the layers of paint in his works, Rohan Wealleans excavates some powerful ideas about the primitive and sexual, writes John Hurrell.

Rohan Wealleans is well known in New Zealand for his highly sculptural paintings that use thick rubbery layers of solidified paint as a carvable material, distinctive because of their marbled layers. These, when sliced from the side with sharp blades, take on a crystalline appearance.

Initially, however, Wealleans used layers of obsessively applied paint brushed over pieces of furniture so that he could later cut into the flexible outer skins, peel them back and pin them down as though part of a surgical procedure. The results were unsettling vaginal forms. One such work,
To the Moon and Back, on a paint-encrusted door, won him New Zealand’s Trust Waikato National Contemporary Art Award in 2003.

About this time Wealleans also began producing a form of organic, non-indigenous tribal art by cutting into the top of his paint layers with a flexible blade, removing shell-like forms to create patterned craters and gluing the removed sections onto pieces of paper as elements in drawings. Another approach was to carve into the original sculpture to make prismatic geometric forms. The cut-off chunks were then threaded into necklaces used in the works.

Last year at Ivan Anthony Gallery in Auckland, Wealleans presented
Origins, a suite of photographs that took these tendencies in a very literal direction. The photographs used five female models (one pregnant), whose naked bodies and genitals were painstakingly decorated with body paint and small cones of dry resene paint. It referenced Courbet’s famous painting The Origin of the World, cycles of human procreation, the conventions of primitive body ornament and worship of the female organ – and also the decorative materials (like glitter and stars) that some young women attach to their depilated genitals. Wealleans’s R18 exhibition generated very little controversy, probably because it was in a dealer gallery, unlike his suggestive (but not explicit) 2003 award winner which was in a public museum.

He shares his coming October exhibition at Ivan Anthony’s with the jeweller and sculptor Karl Fritsch. Both artists are interested in the nature of bodily decoration. Fritsch is known for his primitive rings bearing casually arranged stacks of raw gems. For his part, Wealleans will continue his complex interweaving of tribal, landscape and sexual themes in this exhibition. He plans to include at least one large projecting sculptural wall relief, with lines of beads running through thick hill forms.

Such a fecund composition could be necklaces in perforated bodies, or sex toys (ben wa balls in vaginas or anuses), or lines of insects on a daubed log, rock or termite mound. This of course is being very literal and these works are abstract and allusively vague, hinting at an imagined sequence of events all set within a geological investigation of the properties of paint and of carving.

In Wealleans’s main exhibit,
3D Aboriginal Painting Models, is a series of framed gouache paintings on paper. They feature images of overlapping pieces of netting (each its own distinctive colour) which are stacked so the viewer can look through the loosely clustered, irregular holes. Strings of small beads weave through the mesh. The overall impression is of a symmetrical fractal system. Many of the heaped up layers look like delicately cut-out paper. The lines of interwoven beads trail off into the distance.

Instead of cutting chunks out of solid paint – as he is known for – Wealleans is here mentally exploring the depth of an imagined, honeycombed space of painted line (rather than painted shape). The title and imagery of this work seem to allude to combinations of chronologically-based, interlocking knowledge systems, while the individual shapes present in the mesh configurations appear to reference letters of the Roman alphabet.

These (physically) flat graphic paintings, with their dense detail, exploit the covering power and opacity of gouache. In them Wealleans moves unexpectedly towards a new complexity. His compositional elements have become fragmented and more spread out and his images are less emphasising of mass or solid form. They are explorative of space itself, not surface. It is as if he were tunnelling within a virtual version of the marbled surfaces of his earlier sculptures, inside the painted planes and between the concentric rings of glowing colour, a miner looking for one more excavatable marbled seam.

Rohan Wealleans exhibits new work at Ivan Anthony Gallery in Auckland from 31 October to 24 November 2012.

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