John Hurrell – 19 August, 2011
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.
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art world (if there is such a singular unified community) is dead easy to offend, despite any handy ‘mitigating’ art historical references.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.
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