Connoisseur of the curious, the arcane and sometimes the outright preposterous, Jon Wealleans has been mining two complementary seams for Post-Pop Epiphanies, his third one-person exhibition with Francis Kyle Gallery. For the new still lifes and interiors he has taken his inspiration, first, from the numerous and diverse collections of objects (agglomerations, as he prefers to call them) – a mingling of cherished finds with ephemera ranging from tin toys to rare Art Deco pieces, Jugendstil vases and pop artefacts to Victorian and contemporary tourist paraphernalia – which have caught his fancy over the years and now preside like an occupying army over most of his living space. In tandem, he has turned his subversive compositional sense to the plants and flowers which everywhere border and embrace this space.
In a vision unmistakeable in its brilliance of palette and unremitting intensity of focus, we are invited with Wealleans’ Post-Pop Epiphanies to share the world of a distinguished, idiosyncratic architect turned painter of still lifes and interiors. With such a career trajectory, it is only fitting, indeed, that two Italian designers stand out for him as his chief influences: Alessandro Mendini, creator of mobile infinito, philosophic furniture, and most specially Ettore Sottsass, progenitor of the Memphis movement and super-sensual apostle of creative kitsch favouring artificial materials such as plastic laminates.
Jon Wealleans has often painted flowers so startling they suck the viewer through new doors of heightened perception into another dimension. Flowers return now in abundance but with another agenda. These include a sequence of smaller works which started life as fast watercolours, recording the fall of cast shadows. They were then reworked as oils cropped to a square format, suggesting, as Wealleans comments, a pastiche of the seed packets available at any garden centre, which feature images of impossibly exotic blooms such as Himalayan poppies.
Wealleans’ flowers portray a world of orchid languor glowing in lurid colours, outdoors and exposed to sunlight quite contrary to the traditional flower composition and seeming to constitute, as Proust wrote of the roses painted by his imaginary Elstir, ‘a new variety with which this painter, like some clever horticulturalist, has enriched the Rose family’. The particular strangeness of those faultless floral compositions by the Dutch masters, in which the paintings took shape over successive months with new flowers added as they came into seasonal bloom, is now replaced by Wealleans with another kind of strangeness, one arising from the absence of the usual, single light source, its place taken by an even, diffused halogen lighting mirroring the ubiquitous flood of light of the contemporary interior.
Jon Wealleans (born Yorkshire 1946) studied architecture at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art followed by post-graduate studies in design at the Royal College of Art, where is now an Honorary Fellow. Attracted from the start in his architectural studies by the arts of perspective and the study of shadows as taught in sciagraphy, Wealleans relished the computer free environment of the time with its encouragement to wander between different departments and disciplines.
Wealleans’ career in architecture began with his work with the Building Design Partnership, then Foster Associates before he went on to develop his own practice. In the 1960s he designed shops for the now legendary Mr Freedom and other pop-linked environments as well as furniture which gave him a high public profile and appearances on two BBC TV programs, Design by Five. Concurrently, Wealleans taught architecture and design at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, the Royal College of Art and Kingston University. At around this time he collaborated also with rock musicians and their management, including the Elton John Organisation and Led Zeppelin. Having always painted, though self-taught, Wealleans has devoted increasing time to his painting since the 1990s, and has participated in several of the Gallery’s theme exhibitions including Roma (2000), Lair of the Leopard (2005), Родина: contemporary painters from the West winter in Russia (2008), This twittering world: Contemporary painters celebrate TS Eliot’s Four Quartets (2011) and Jumping for Joyce (2013). One-person exhibitions with Francis Kyle Gallery 2009, 2011 and 2014.
A sharpness of focus, at once joyous and disconcerting, is a feature uniting Jon Wealleans’ approach. Suggesting the restless antennae of a bee in pursuit of pollen, Wealleans’ vision has a cinematic quality, as the viewer’s eye is drawn from one intriguing cluster to another, the entire vision in every finely observed detail ablaze with the artist’s exceptionally hot and shocking palette.
The breadth of reference in Jon Wealleans’ subjects may surprise, but it is never contrived: the objects, furniture and artefacts on view are more in the way of an autobiography and have come together as one experience follows another. Rare pieces from the Arts and Crafts and Art Deco movements sit alongside Victorian and contemporary tourist paraphernalia acquired from around the world, from fine craftsmanship to primitive folk art and valueless local tat, with the happiest hunting grounds located in India and Mexico .
‘It may be reasonable to suggest,’ writes Will Self, ‘ that Wealleans - fine and honest artist that he is – paints the way he does because he knows how intrinsic to his own creative process is the concept of ordered chaos: a seemingly random agglomeration of objects, that yet contain within their interrelation the lineaments of the mind that assembled them. Far from harkening back to the Old Masters, Wealleans’ paintings evoke shamanic ‘symbol sets’: ritual objects which are arranged then re-arranged in order to provoke remote effects’. The other side of chaos, orchestrating these compositions and giving them their unique energy is magic of another kind, the artist’s ability simultaneously to surprise, challenge and excite us.
‘I have attempted a subversion of the Old Master still life tradition, but what astonishes me is that while modern interiors are full of memento mori – there hangs the never-used nutmeg grater that tells us our meals are numbered – there isn’t a single available light source. Natural daylight, from a window, falling from left to right across skulls, fruit and cloth – these are recognised as the essential signifiers of mortality: the eye reads the image as a narrative of life itself, with a beginning, middle and end.
‘Now, instead of this quite orderly basis for sciagraphy – the creation of perspective by the rendition of light and shade – the painter is faced with hideous sciamachy: he must fight with the scores of jinn-like, wispy little shadows that are created by those cursed halogen bulbs!’
“In place of the unified focal length of the photographic image, Wealleans substitutes the saccades of the human eye as it surveys a prospect, zooming in and out, panning continually. This is, of course, quite like an analogue of memory itself, as it ranges over space and time… While his paintings at first glance seem fairly straightforward, on closer inspection they suck you into their golden glow of be-here-nowness”