New York

John Wesley

John Wesley has always been hard to pin down. Linda Norden, curator of a recent exhibition of his work at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, has described him as a “not-quite-pop, faux-primitive Californian” as well as the “Henri Rousseau of his generation.” In these pages in October 2000, Dave Hickey opined that his “penchant for erotic narrative . . . defines Wesley as more an eighteenth-century fabulist.” We can at least agree that the artist started to mine popular culture for imagery in the early ’60s and used it to sexier and more eccentric ends than his fellow painters Warhol, Rosenquist, and Lichtenstein. Recent works like Utamaro Nude, Bumstead Nude and Utamaro Washing, Bumstead Sleeping (both 2003) also make it clear he’s no naïf. With the simultaneous homage to the eighteenth-century Japanese master (whose art influenced late-nineteenth-century French painters and thereby modernism) and mid-twentieth-century newspaper comics, Wesley provides a kind of reflexive imprimatur for his own signature style. Pairing the American comic strip every-husband with a woman straight out of ukiyo-e, he joins Eastern tradition and Western Pop in unholy matrimony. The joke—a fairly sophisticated one—is that both Utamaro and the creator of Dagwood rely on flat areas of color for the character of their work.

Indeed, the artist has described his work as closer to a banner or poster than a painting; limited largely to a palette of baby blue, pink, black, and a spectrum of flesh tones, they’re painted without modeling or perspective. This show found Wesley up to his usual tricks with images as mannered as film stills, often marked by an expressive quirk (like the oval glasses on the girl being kissed in Smooch, 2003). Pushing toward abstraction is Nail Police, 2003, with its bouquet of red toenails, and Aer Lingus, 2002, which after some study reveals itself to be the four legs of two flight attendants. However pared down, Wesley’s paintings are flatly comedic, the lines of black around each compositional element providing their punch lines.

Over the course of his career, everyone has appeared in Wesley’s paintings: gentle gorillas, Popeye, and, instead of JFK (portrayed by Warhol, Rosenquist, and Rauschenberg), his 1960 opponent, Michigan governor Gerhard Mennen “Soapy” Williams. Part of what set Wesley apart within early Pop was the breadth of his bricolage—he rhymed the serial imagery of ancient friezes and pottery with contemporary wallpaper patterns. But he’s also friendlier toward his subjects than, say, Warhol, treating cosmopolitanism as an excuse for tender romance. In Tango, 2003, the skin colors of the man and woman are two slightly different shades of peach. It is the simplest of compositions, but you can’t help feeling it’s a sort of analogy for Wesley’s own work overall: highly structured but flagrantly sensuous; extremely simple but impossible to imitate. Perhaps in the end he is most like Rousseau, celebrating the pleasures rather than the rigors of painting. Or perhaps not: Experienced at close range, it’s invariably more complex.

Martha Schwendener