New York

John Wells

Barbara Braathen Gallery

John Wells named his first solo show “The Secret History,” after a scandalous account of the private lives of the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora. Any search for a direct connection would be in vain, but the title is appropriate in the most general sense. Wells has a fondness for unofficial versions, for neglected lore, for the byways and backwaters of history, art, religion, and philosophy that is completely disarming and original.

The show consisted of some 42 small, festively colored gouaches. These included a handful of attractive abstractions, but most were variations on the theme of the imaginary landscape. They depict strange rock formations inhabited by enigmatic faces topped by odd hats and hairdos; there are also numbers of stunted or graceful trees, stelae, fire altars, minarets, crescents, crosses, Minoan columns, Japanese sacred gates, stars, starfish, numerals, and dancers. Wells’ imagery invokes Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego, 1640, as well as the landscapes of Phrygia and Cappadocia—landscapes he has apparently never visited but has nevertheless recorded very accurately.

A green-hatted figure playing a flute, backed up by an ensemble of two starfish and a large fleur-de-lis, hints at the important part music plays in Wells’ work. He prefers to paint while listening to Renaissance or French baroque music, but the music his works most resemble is Eric Satie’s. Like that perpetually impoverished aristocrat of the spirit, Wells rejects all merely “bureaucratic” forms of expression. He is an ironist with mystical leanings, and a cheerfully ecumenical approach to the sacred. He wants to arrive at illumination but he chooses the wayward path of charm, wit, and quiet amusement. The work is intensely private and immediately accessible, at once arcanum and carnival.

Most of these paintings are so intricate, so full of fresh ideas that it would take more space than I’m allowed just to describe one of them, but I will make an attempt. The painting is called Alladdin Rising, 1994. The background (if you can call it that) consists of hills and plateaux colored purple, saffron, and orange, surmounted by tiny sepulchral monuments resembling pepper pots. The foreground is occupied by two extraordinary objects. One is a bright green kiosk-cum-minaret that encloses a man with an orange star floating above his head. The other is a palm tree with a brilliant-red trunk that seems to be writhing in helpless laughter. Wells is a firm believer in “the privileged position of free fancy,” to quote one of his titles. He is also addicted to the pure, intense colors of stained glass and Byzantine enamels. His paintings are all, in essence, laughing laments, optimistic elegies, and charms for our times. They have something of the indomitable eccentricity and poignant whimsy of Robert Walser’s stories. “The Secret History” was one of the most surprising pleasures of 1994.

John Ash