Critics’ Picks

Utamaro Nude, Bumstead
Nude, 2003.

Utamaro Nude, Bumstead

New York

John Wesley

Fredericks & Freiser
536 West 24th Street
October 25–December 6, 2003

For the past forty years, John Wesley—a painter whose cast of characters includes Dagwood Bumstead, bald, naked men in garters, birds, and bears—has created some of the most hilariously erotic pictures around. His paintings are flat and bright, their palette limited to sky blue, flesh beige, and candy pink, their figures reduced to simple shapes rimmed by bold black lines. A white border frames many of the pictures, flattening things out even more. Wesley owes as much to Japanese ukiyo-e as to the comic book, and in this group of new paintings he directly quotes the work of Kitagawa Utamaro (1754–1806), one of the masters of the genre. Three works from 2003 pair an old favorite, Dagwood, with Utamaro-esque women. Expertly plying two-dimensionality, sharp outlines, and “flatness," Wesley’s affinities with ukiyo-e go beyond its formal aspects to a shared preoccupation with sex. The perverse erotics of these paintings are straightforward yet subtle, tensely concentrated in the in-between spaces. In Mexican Movie, 2002, for example, the faces of a man and a woman nearly touch, while the swath of baby blue sky that separates them vibrates with delayed gratification. Employing a simple iconography of the familiar-enough, Wesley achieves a sexy particularity.