Los Angeles

John Wesley

Daniel Weinberg Gallery

While walking around this tight show of seven works spanning thirty years of John Wesley’s career, my friends and I concurred that although Wesley is not among those on the tips of the tongues of hedge fund collectors, so-called edgy curators, or, sadly, many younger painters, there is more to look at in his work than in many rooms at MoMA.

“Retroactive Pop” and “meta-representation,” two idiosyncratic terms that Donald Judd used to negotiate the strange, powerful paintings of John Wesley, resonate even as Judd noted, in an early review, seemingly structural concerns: “Most of the paintings are like or are copies of the pictures and patterns of blue and white china. Most of the forms are nineteenth-century. The forms selected, the shapes to which they are unobtrusively altered, the order used and the small details are humorous and goofy. This becomes a cool, psychological oddness.”

Specifically, the colors are the blues, whites, greens, and pinks of Wedgwood along with the pearl of Belleek. Wesley’s inky blacks, often deployed to question the outlines or edges of things, equal those of Alex Katz and Henri Matisse. The forms selected, however goofy, can, unexpectedly, summon a deep emotional response, which might be due to “cool, psychological oddness” or to Wesley’s ability to conjure narrativity without definite story, the novelistic in a single-stranded graphic frame. “Retroactive Pop” implies a boomerang-like sweep, starting nowhere near “Pop,” swerving toward it only to end up not exactly where it began. When this is joined with “meta-representation,” Wesley’s painterly methods can be viewed as representations about the means of representation, not Pop per se but rather clarifying the possibilities of the intellectual and sexual conditions of the popular.

In Lust, 1990, a study in the variegations of the artist’s doted-on Wedgwood hues, a Donald Duck–like character stares out caught in the act, his pink beak engorged with five softer pink, Busby Berkley–esque gams. What does it say about representation that the baby blue ground of the painting makes up all of the duck’s “face” and the “whites” of his eyes, or that Donald’s sailor’s cap has sagged into white Bugs Bunny–like ears, separated from the surrounding white border only by a thin black outline? Often in Wesley’s work, line becomes border only to become body, and shadow or reflection is transformed into subject. Despite whatever musk of Tijuana Bible scents the scene, Donald’s bugging out.

Wesley is also, for all his comedic stylings, a scholar of heartbreak—I wanted to add “actual heartbreak becoming representational and vice versa,” but it’s the oblique obtuseness (cool, odd, psychological?) of his proceedings that fascinates. In Funeral for a Bird Dog, 1978, the dog’s head, white patches around his eyes complemented by pink muzzle and ears, pokes up from a large urn, a white cloud outlined in black behind the canine quietly suggesting a halo. (Of course, the dog could be behind the urn rather than rising up from within it.) Two pairs of birds gird the front of the urn like hieroglyphs, and the dog and urn sit forward in a landscape. Two other clouds, again delineated in black, abut the single center cloud on each side but merge with the white border that surrounds the memorial scene. The dog’s eyes are blue, the nose darker pink than his muzzle; his left eye wanders a bit.

While I’ll admit my own little dog has been fighting a series of infections and spent a lot of time at the vet, this private drama has little to do with the painting’s emotional power: You’d have to be lobotomized not to feel something here—despite a palette of only a half dozen or so colors and forms as spare, assured, and graphic as a safety diagram, in an arrangement odd enough to approach the surreality of the daily. Unlikely as they are resolute, these elements create a painting that’s mysterious, elegiac, and indelible.

Bruce Hainley