The Wizard of Paint
By Mark Amery
With their Winter Season up and running there is an almost perceptible hum at City Gallery Wellington - the sound of a public energised by a smart and relevant programme.
Accompanied by a useful, dynamic new website, it feels like a public gallery fulfilling its civic brief. From excellent long awaited shows from key local figures Rob McLeod and Ian Athfield, to a new international project space hosting Seoul’s Michelangelo Pistoletto Band and powerfully presented ceramics by Wi Taepa, it’s a programme bustling with diversity and distinction. It feels like it taps into the character of the city. All this before new director Elizabeth Caldwell has even entered the building.
The icing on the cake is Rohan Wealleans’ Apocalyptic Intuition. I mean that quite literally. Wealleans provides rich painterly confection, known for building up layer upon layer of paint on objects before carving away at it, as if exposing the fleshy innards of a fruit or excavating the stratified markings of other civilisations. It’s all done with a delightfully irreverent theatricality that posits the artist as some clever, psychedelic sci-fi fried street wizard, casting surrealist spells.
The effectiveness of Wealleans’ work has wavered over the years for me between charged ambiguously symbolic objects and more decorative wall works. That tension is still apparent here, yet the way the wizard takes over the big, high stud West Gallery is masterly. Working with curator Aaron Lister, he owns the gallery as large public space. The show speaks powerfully to the corrupted nature of the grand public visual gesture in our culture. Some strange amalgam of ruined temple and painted cave, it is as if some Pied Piper like magician has magicked delightful changes on some orthodox state statuary on behalf of the populace.
On entry you’re presented with what looks like a giant golden nut or turd. This turns out to be the top of a giant bearded head on its side, as if a remnant from a colonial statue, decapitated in protest. The powerful state agency in this case however turns out to be the television industry: the head is a pimped up prop from Xena: Warrior Princess.
Within the head, behind a Hobbit-like octagonal shaped wooden door Wealleans has carved out a pod for you the gallery visitor to rest and mind travel in. Visually restrained by Wealleans standards, it’s a cosy white cave with shagpile and the roof decorated by the artist’s scalloping and marbling effects. One wall features a growth of crystals and there’s a doll with a paint-encrusted face holding a crystal ball – the controls presumably by which you set the craft’s destination. Wealleans work offers you a sense of luxuriated empowerment.
A second large figure reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, in which a royal statue makes friends with a swallow and gets the bird to give his riches to the poor. A giant prophet-like figure has his arms outstretched, but his left hand is severed and his right a patchwork of blood red stigmata. While his jacket is an ornate, baroque kind of armour (studded punk-like by energy-concentrated pyramids of hardened layers of paint) the man’s eyes are just blood filled slits.
These two works reach deeply into our collective storytelling well. Be it the legends reinvented by popular culture or old European fairy stories, such stories provide collective ways to question power, morality and faith. Wealleans’ work is richer for such narrative resonances.
Across one long wall are no less than 48 abstract paintings. Wealleans has given these a narrative, titling them in four groups as if to suggest they are alien storyboards for a wacky biopic film about a wizard (‘Conception, family history’, ‘Training spells’, ‘Alien Abduction’ and ‘Final battle’). Yet language or structure is impossible to discern and on mass, like a grouping of young children’s paintings, they tend to all swirl into one congealed clump.
Individually though they are occasionally powerful. Initially appearing primitive, the more you look the more sophisticated in both craft and references they are, from cartoon faces to what look like 3D topographical maps of ritual sites. A devastating whirlpool of energy might have been what Wealleans was after but fewer, quality works given more space would have done the world of good. Sometimes even wizards need reigning in.