Spellbound: Rohan Wealleans’ Apocalyptic Intuition

From its scratchy beginnings on the walls of Palaeolithic caves, painting has been closely bound with magic and ritual. Animals were pictured on these walls in acts of sympathetic magic, summoned into the physical world through representation in order to be hunted and eaten. Bodies, idols, and sites have been painted ever since for a variety of ritualistic purposes: as part of fertility rites, to consecrate, ward off evil, inflict harm, or summon spirits. Early Christian churches used painting to bring the Bible to life, and to transport an illiterate congregation to the heavens. The renaissance discovery of perspective redefined painting as a portal between worlds.

In Apocalyptic Intuition, Rohan Wealleans calls on the powers of paint seemingly lost to or forgotten by the contemporary world and its galleries. This is a body of work about the power of paint as a transformative force, a force that can summon beings, create and destroy worlds, transcend and transport. Wealleans is obsessed not just with paint as a material substance but with investing that substance with talismanic powers and energies. His paintings are living, breathing forms, always in the process of becoming something or somewhere else.

With each new body of work, Wealleans channels or possesses a different persona or character, getting outside of himself to free up the act of making and enter new realms. Here it is the monumental Wizard of Forgotten Flesh, a caster of spells and holder of arcane magic who stands in for the artist and the transformations he enacts in the studio.

Wizards don’t often materialise in contemporary art galleries. They belong elsewhere, in Dungeons and Dragons or in B-grade films—popular entertainment that offers an escape from the realities of existence that contemporary art tends to earnestly, and endlessly, negotiate. Wealleans’ paintings induce visceral reactions that are aligned to this low-brow sphere of horror, fantasy, and science fiction to upset the niceties of contemporary art and the polite gallery experience. Yet in seeking to shock, scare, arouse, and amuse, he somehow taps into those ancient powers long invested in painting as an act of magic and ritual.

The Wizard of Forgotten Flesh is both symbol of and subject to these transformations. He is a found object, a polystyrene and fiberglass prop from fantasy television production Legend of the Seeker. Discarded by the industry, Wealleans brings the Dark Wizard Darken Rahl back to life through an act of painterly transformation, the labour-intensive application of hundreds of layers of lumbersider house paint which is carved into or stripped back to reveal the bright strata of colours and textures pulsating beneath the surface. Wealleans’ distinctive painting process itself echoes Rahl’s own command of both additive and subtractive magic, forms of enchantment that alter physical reality by respectively adding to or removing its physical elements. Darken Rahl becomes The Wizard of Forgotten Flesh, his polystyrene form covered with a dense shell of hardened paint that turns a prop from a television show into a commanding monumental sculpture, a piece of public statuary.

The Wizard is heralded in the set of forty-eight paintings that accompany him. Like the mosaics or stained-glass windows of churches, the frames of a comic book, or storyboards for a film, these paintings create a single narrative structure that tracks the journey of its hero and fleshes out his backstory. Act one starts with his conception and messy birth. Subsequent acts move through the spells and incarnations of the Wizard’s training, his abduction by aliens who gifted new powers, and the final epic battle that pitted the Wizard against his greatest adversary, leading to peace on earth.

Wealleans loads apparently abstract paintings with narrative and fiction to transform the material substance of paint into a life-giving, generative one. Here he creates whole worlds through a process of ‘farming paint’, the building up and harvesting of living surfaces that grow, breathe and move. Resembling topographic maps or the scrolling stages of a role-playing game, these paintings become fantastical landscapes, as well as restless bodies. These alien worlds in turn provide settings for dramatic cross-cultural or even cross-species actions and encounters. Wealleans has made wizards and oracles, and also whole ‘primitive’ tribes, races of highly sexualised alien beings, and mythical jungle women.

The Psychosis Chamber of the Oracle, a giant head decked out as a gem-filled, sweetly scented painted cave, is another transformed television prop —this time from Xena: Warrior Princess. This is a work to be experienced from the inside out, realising the promise of Wealleans’ wall-bound paintings which are peeled back, sliced open or ritualistically gutted to expose their messy interiors. Painting manifests here as both body and portal, holding the potential to transport its audience between different realms and states of being. The much-discussed space between painting and sculpture is taken far beyond art theory and aesthetics into the realm of pure magic. 

The invitation to enter Wealleans’ paintings is never straightforward, as evidenced by the recurrence of bright colours to attract prey, and the nets, traps and sharp teeth used to capture and dissect victims. Here, the threat comes from the deformed, paint-diseased figure of the Oracle seated inside her psychosis chamber. Another take on the monstrous feminine figure that malevolently moves through so much of Wealleans’ work, the fortune-telling Oracle is the only element that threatens to break the Wizard’s spell and its promise of an escape from a dull reality through an embodied form of painting—the ultimate magic trick performed by the work.

This book offers a pathway through Apocalyptic Intuition. Each painting is reproduced alongside an accompanying text that propels the narrative, relays a spell, or provides a blow-by-blow account of the final battle. Both written by the artist and lifted from pop culture sources, these texts are less descriptions than incantations. Rather than locking stories intothe painted surface, they command the content to force its way out, to invade our space, our world, and our heads.

Published in: Rohan Wealleans: Apocalyptic Intuition, (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington), 2–10.