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Rohan Wealleans Photography

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Invite to Origins Rohan Wealleans, Freyja 2011, colour photograph, 143 x 117 cm Photograph by Rohan Wealleans

Wealleans doesn't seem to be satirising eroticism or tribalism here. It is not his nature to think in terms of irony but more to embrace I think an anti-intellectualism. Rather he wants these photos to titillate and annoy, and to present heterosexuality as a primal fact - while also perhaps paying homage to the recent phenomenon of female genital decoration - using (post-Brazilian) make up products, sequins and glitter.



Rohan Wealleans


27 July - 27 August 2011

In 2003 when Rohan Wealleans won the Trust Waikato National Contemporary Art Award, the judge, Tobias Berger, in his announcing speech referred to the large vertical yellow painting with its cut layers of pinned-back, leaf-like folds as ‘a huge bright vagina’. It was an unusual way of introducing an artist to an audience unfamiliar with his methods and content. However even before this event Wealleans had been provoking admiration and anger with his ambiguous ‘abstractions’.

He was also making figurative images rendered in paint, of women in suggestive poses - just in case anybody missed the point - and at the same time producing a form of eclectic ‘tribalism’ where vaguely Pacific or African forms made of layered and/or carved paint were suspended from wheels or stands, and wafers of sliced rubbery paint threaded on lines (or glued in rows to surfaces) like beads.

This current exhibition at Ivan Anthony’s features nine large photographs of painted naked women, some in spread-legged poses or with close ups of their decorated genitalia. It has links to both streams of Wealleans’ practice. Whereas in tribal art such ‘native’ bodies would be decorated in coloured mud and perhaps lines of small shells, Wealleans’ models are covered in garish body paint and lines of pock-shaped pimples, made of solidified acrylic cut out of his thickly laminated sculptures. The title of course refers to The Origin of the World, Courbet’s famous vulva painting of 1866.

So what is this artist up to? It is obvious he likes to shock. The art world (if there is such a singular unified community) is dead easy to offend, despite any handy ‘mitigating’ art historical references.

It might be that he is attempting a hybrid amalgamation where solid paint and living female flesh become one and successfully co-exist. He happily colonises the women’s bodies by gluing volcano shaped chips (pustules of paint) onto their outer organs, acting as some sort of mad plastic surgeon who is reshaping (or innoculating?) them with rubbery epidermal accessories.

Wealleans doesn’t seem to be satirising eroticism or tribalism here. It is not his nature to think in terms of irony but more to embrace, I think, an anti-intellectualism. Rather he wants these photos to titillate and annoy, and to present heterosexuality as a primal fact - while also perhaps generating a few laughs by paying homage to the recent phenomenon of female genital decoration that uses (post-Brazilian) make up products, sequins and glitter.

Now he could have painted cocks and anuses too and said that this project was about something beyond his own heterosexual itches, that he wanted his audience to think about more than just his possible horniness as Priest of Paint, that he wanted them to think about the liberation and celebration of sexual organs for everybody - but he is clearly not interested. That sort of expansive Blakean Ginsburgian generosity would have subverted the obsessiveness that generates the energy for his practice.

What is unusual about these photos is the inclusion of two images of a pregnant woman, something that goes against the grain of conventional pornography with its clichés of single masturbating babes or gambolling pairs - also included. The fecund but heavily decorated belly of the maternal image matches a ubiquitous shape in his sculptural repertoire, as paradoxically do some of the more explicit gynaecological images the vagina dentata of the balloon-like shark jaws he is famous for; the body colour and little cones of paint somehow making them menacing. Others however look like technicolour lilies or slices of opened fruit.

This is a clever show because it layers body paint, encrusted acrylic and female bodies together as a strange kind of collective trope. Yet the images are oddly disturbing because it is the rubbery ‘shells’ and body paint that bring a tackiness, not the women and their poses. I prefer Wealleans‘ work when narrative aspects are really downplayed. It is his use of paint as a carveable substance for sculpture that fascinates me, not the (what I see as) extraneous myth building. I acknowledge his cunning and mischievous wit but prefer the physical properties of sex and paint to be kept far apart.

John Hurrell

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This Discussion has 4 comments.


Roger Boyce, 7:21 p.m. 21 August, 2011

Lest we forgo the 'ecstasy of influence' or, gott behute, fail to render obeisance due our visual-art forerunners... please observe with me a moment of silence for the late Hannah Wilke -

Also John - if I may punctiliously inquire about a linguistic anomaly in an otherwise deftly negotiated and wonderfully articulated piece of critical writing - about some relatively thorny material.

Why, in this particular bit of criticism, are primary (as opposed to secondary) sex characteristics of Weallean's female figures scrupulously, or perhaps clinically, described as -"genitalia/genital,vagina,outer organs"? Whereas, by contrast, a hypothetical male 'unit', brought to the discussion, is euphemistically (and sportively?) rendered as a "cock"?

I'd also like to interrogate the questionable notion, advanced in your piece, that there's such a thing as "conventional" pornography. And that Weallan's images run against its grain.

I would submit - with dutiful nods to Susan Sontag and Laura Kipnis - that pornography is an essentially unregulated market that deals in wholesale, myriad, desublimation - as opposed to some sort of select, binary (conventional/unconventional) erotic image-stream.

And,I'll further argue, that Weallan's painted and puttied preggers would feel (and look) right at home in the Felliniseque catacombs of Internet-porn.

That's not to take anything away from the potential efficacy (in whatever category) of Weallean's current images - or to devalue the nimbleness of your latest prose stylings.

Also - as I always do when I stumble upon the superannuated term 'commodification' - I have to pick a bone over your unfortunate employment of the equally geriatric and descriptively ineffectual adverb(?) "colonization". As in "He happily colonises the women’s bodies" - in connection to Weallean's employment of the female body as armature for his somatic modifications.

Given all of my nit-picking about your piece and Weallean's pieces I haven't given away much of what I think of the photographs. Now have I?

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Christopher Taylor, 9:48 p.m. 21 August, 2011

It is all strangely prudish. Hans Bellmer, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Picabia, Dali some 70s American photographer...Meatyard? etc etc. 70s - 80s.

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Christopher Taylor, 9:52 p.m. 21 August, 2011

Just remembered...Joel Peter Witkin. Check this out Rohan, and shift up a gear if this is your gig.

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John Hurrell, 10:53 p.m. 21 August, 2011

Okay Roger it's the 'tribal' accoutrements that worry me. The coloured body paint looks tacky and slightly faecal or muddy - it's smeary nature has something degrading about it. The women would look better (to my somewhat trite taste perhaps) without it, as 'conventional' naked-body porn, though of course the artist has a context that he has carefully maintained and so there is a consistent logic behind his constructed images.

Yes I could have described the various female bits and pieces in medical detail but what would be achieved by that - apart from appearing to be needlessly salacious. My understated description is sufficiently effective I think. Most readers are worldly enough to understand the genre.

And actually, I could also have posted a more representative and detailed range of images, but I'm consciously trying to build up the site's readership - and get debate like this encouraged - not freak out some of my more jittery audience. Besides for adult Aucklanders the show is easily accessible and they can check it out directly for themselves, and hopefully get back to this discussion.

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