New York

John Wesley


Though John Wesley was initially categorized as a Pop artist in the early ’60s. the label does little justice to the richness of his oeuvre. Like his early contemporaries, Wesley chose to work with the visual language of popular culture, appropriating and reinventing the hard-edged style and sometimes the specific iconography of classic ’50s comic-book cartoons. For Wesley, however, this language provided a point of departure for subtle investigations of form (associated with first-generation Minimalists) and content, often described as Surrealist for lack of a better term. Wesley’s paintings continue to combine a Pop vocabulary, a refined Minimal sensibility, and a surrealistic proclivity for uncanny juxtapositions.

More than simple appropriations, Wesley’s portrayals of popular cartoon characters in odd, often pathological scenarios are tempered with a sense of humor. Ushering the viewer into one room was a small Sweepea, 1990, an angry, infantile witness to two primal scenes featuring Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead. In Blondie and Dagwood, 1990, Blondie lies face-down on the Bumstead’s conjugal bed, wearing only a blouse and pumps and crying into a handkerchief.

A fully-clothed Dagwood leans over her from behind, his face also obscured, and it is not clear if he is attempting to console or to mount her. Wesley’s formal wit operates subtly—the tubular negative space between Dagwood’s legs doubles for an erect penis. Active and passive roles are reversed in Off His Feed, 1990, in which the couple appears naked. Dagwood clutches his pillow and gazes emptily into space, while Blondie, with her back to us, tickles her husband’s foot. Wesley’s stylization of their anatomies is exaggerated—Dagwood is missing one leg, and the couple’s hands are oddly distorted. No longer squeaky-clean, Blondie and Dagwood have become players in ambiguous scenes charged with violence and eroticism.

Sexual desire is equated with violence in Lust, 1990, a work in which a nightmarish Donald Duck gazes blankly at the viewer, with five legs protruding from his beak. Equally violent is Bumstead, Maddened by the Mistral, Fighting for His Knife, 1990, which presents two Dagwoods struggling for possession of a murder weapon. Wesley has in the past remarked: “My father was like Bumstead. He was thin like Bumstead and he wore a tie to work and when he came home from work he tipped his hat to the neighbors.” This painting constitutes an exorcism of sorts that is in equal measure sincere and humorous. The double Dagwood is matched by a double Mrs. Mitchell, 1990–91. Here the well-loved mother of Dennis the Menace appears in two identical images. Nude, she reclines with her hand on her crotch and her eyes just out of view. In these humorously blasphemous paintings, familiar characters are transformed into figures of rage and forbidden desire.

The maternal is a theme explored in a new group of 11 cartoonish nude females. These women are nonspecific, and radically cropped by the frame so that only parts of their bodies are visible. Their faces are often out of view, and their eyes, if visible, are always closed. Floating in purplish-blue fields, their bodies undulate like waves on an ocean. A Mrs. Mitchell look-alike appears to be in the throes of ecstasy à la Bernini’s St. Theresa. Several other overtly maternal nudes coo down at the viewer, whose perspective is that of an infant at the breast. These figures are oceanic, enveloping, and infinite; they exist only as nonthreatening part-objects. The poses or faces of other women, shown lying prone and vulnerable, are blatantly erotic, betraying sexual pleasure. In this series, Wesley conflates the maternal and the erotic, effectively underscoring the infantile nature of the media’s obsessional fragmentation and objectification of women. For Wesley, the personal and the social are inseparable.

Jenifer P. Borum