“Sleep is the form in which every living creature has the right to genius, to its strange imaginings and magnificent vagaries.” (Jean Cocteau)
Weird Tales was an American magazine that published tales of horror and science fiction from 1923 to 1954, by cult authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson and Fritz Leiber. One of the most characteristic features of this pulp magazine was the compelling graphic style of the covers, based on a mixture of mystery and marvel, exotica and subtle fetishism. A style that set the pace for alternative publishing, but one that does not actually have much to do with the graphic language of the Ukrainian painter and muralist Waone. In spite of this fact, it should still come as no surprise that the artist (whose real name is Vladimir Manzhos) has decided to use this title for his exhibition.
It is not a matter of similarities of style, but a question of interest in a certain type of story. Weird is an adjective that has many meanings: strange or bizarre, wild or illogical, but also magical, supernatural, mysterious, arcane. In short, the perfect adjective for Waone’s works, though they are not “pulp.”
And there’s more: the narrative attitude, the focus on storytelling, have always been characteristics of Waone’s painting, ever since the days in which he formed an “artistic” couple with his friend Aec (Aleksei Bordusov) in the duo known as Interesni Kazki which – as a matter of fact – means “interesting fables” in Ukrainian. So we might say that the “weird tales” of today are the evolution of the “interesting fables” of yesterday. In the end, it is all about stories. And speaking of stories, the tale of Waone himself is also quite interesting (and weird).
Self-taught but raised in a family of art lovers – his father was a collector of orthodox icons – at an early age the artist revealed a true passion for drawing. His name comes from Vavan, a nickname for Vladimir, but has been transcribed into the English Wa-One, with a wink at the urban culture of rap and graffiti. Waone made his debut in Kiev in 1999 as a writer, but already in 2003 he had given up train bombing and hip-hop lettering in favor of murals marked by a forceful, visionary narrative thrust.
In 2005 he formed the duo Intersni Kazki with Aec, with whom he shares an interest in visual narration and esoteric symbolism. In a span of little more than ten years, the two made large murals in Europe, Russia, India, Mexico and the United States. Waone and Aec do not paint together. Each one does his own part of the painting, but they are both clearly influenced by the “ligne claire” of French and Belgian comics, translating images from the unconscious into very colorful tales full of references to science fiction and numerology, cosmology and folklore, myth and magic.
When the duo split in 2016, Waone began to develop a language based on an elegant and finely detailed linear approach. After the making of Matter: Changing States, a large mural done at Kerala, in India, black and white became one of the earmarks of his style, though in parallel he continues to paint with a palette of bright colors.
Curiously, the artists that have influenced the visual universe of Waone do not belong to the world of graffiti. And it should come as no surprise that he prefers to think of himself as a muralist rather than a street artist. His tutelary deities are figures like the French artist Moebius (alias Jean Giraud) and the American Robert Crumb, the former an inventor of a fantastic futuristic universe, the latter deus ex machina of American psychedelic comics. Besides these, Waone has been influenced by many other artists of the past, from the neoclassical painter Jean-Baptiste Debret with his landscapes of colonial Brazil, to the engraver Johann Theodor de Bry with his descriptions of the massacres of natives in the Americas, or contemporary illustrators like Mati Klarwein – creator of the famous cover of Bitches Brew by Miles Davis – and Walton Ford. Nevertheless, the deepest shaping of the fantastic imaginary of Waone was done by the Surrealism of Salvador Dalí. “Surrealism is a vision of the world,” he said a few years ago in an interview, “[…] a sort of reality imagined through symbols.”
His works are studded with allegorical and dreamy images, blending a wide range of spiritual traditions with the discoveries of quantum mechanics, references to myths and folklore, the description of natural and cosmological scenarios. An iconographic mixture that is also the product of the cultural and cosmopolitan melting pot he experienced during ten years of travels around the world to make murals. A painting like Magician of Maghreb, for example, mixes snake charmers from Marrakech with whirling dervishes of Konya in a neo-orientalist 1001 Nights vision. Elsewhere, Dionis in High Boat is a metaphysical dream that crosses motifs of Greek mythology with the graphic intuitions of Moebius and even of Hokusai. Instead, what is described in Beta to Alpha Transition and To the End of Time seems like a parallel universe, modified by the laws of subatomic physics.
Each painting is a dense magma of figures and images that comply with the random language of legends and the quirky grammar of fables, defying any logical, linear interpretation. The stories painted by Waone do not obey the classic rules of narrative, but neither do they yield to the irrational chaos of a stream of consciousness.
For the Ukrainian muralist the purpose of art – true art – should be to transform the loftiest divine intuitions into visual form that can be understood by all. An idea of the artist as pontifex, capable of connecting high and low, the spiritual and earthly spheres, that would have appealed to traditionalist scholars like Pavel Florensky and Ananda Coomaraswamy. An idea that also explains why Waone’s paintings are so full of magical and esoteric allusions, and so often feature personifications of natural forces.
The works of Weird Tales basically sum up all the motifs of Waone’s art. For example, there are the cubical boxes that remind us of Renaissance magic squares (Spiral of Life, The Planetary Motion and To the End of Time), but also miniature planispheres and heavenly gates that open space-time passages towards other dimensions. There are the large bearded heads that emerge from the ground, like personifications of the spirit of the planet, the gilded cages that imprison man (Prisoned Mind) and, finally, the books of wisdom that free the mind, urging it to investigate the dimension of the unknown (Untitled and Beta To Alpha Transition).
Like Italo Calvino in the meta-novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Waone has invented an open narrative device, a sort of meta-painting that no longer reflects only the inner world of the artist, but at the same time becomes the screen on which the observer is invited to project his own interpretations. The artist uses his active imagination as the key to paint a perspective much wider than that of strictly biographical concerns. In short, he adopts a vision – as Alejandro Jodorowsky would say - “that makes it possible to put life into focus from points of view that are not ours, and to think and feel starting from different perspectives.” With his painting filled with echoes of the spirituality and folklore of various peoples, Waone demonstrates that he has gotten definitively beyond the extreme subjectivism of the Surrealists, having understood that fantasy painting today has to come to terms with the cosmopolitan culture of the contemporary world. Because it is in the very rich and composite variety of traditions and cultures that separate one continent from the next that the Ukrainian artist will find other interesting fables to be told.