John Wesley at Fredericks & Freiser Gallery
Review by Jill Conner
By 1970 critics had decided that abstract painting was dead, an empty genre, while the industrial forms of Minimalism populated galleries and museums, heralding in the new. Following the cosmetic characteristic of Abstract Expressionism, when color and beauty trumped catharsis and reality, the success of figurative painting was identified in the articulation of flat forms, as seen in advertising graphics. Artists such as James Rosenquist, Alex Katz, Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselmann and Roy Lichtenstein satisfied consumer demand, providing viewers with sterile icons and images of themselves that were empty of criticism but flush with fantasy. John Wesley’s pop-style paintings features in “May I Cut In? Important Paintings from the Early ‘70s,” at the Fredericks & Freiser Gallery, balanced reality with fantasy depicting men, women, children and animals as stoic as Henry Darger’s “The Vivian Girls,” but even more sexually subversive, with a focus on bestiality.
Canada's Toughest Soldier, 1973
Canada’s Toughest Solder (1973) portrays an identical man and woman standing together staring blankly out at the viewer and framed with an array of Canadian maple leafs. In a dark twist, Wesley exposes the flake of Canadian society caused by the shadow of America and its thirst for international war. Yet at the same time, the artist utilizes this irony as a progressive suggestion for the USA. Mail Order Blues (1972) however, depicts a reclining nude woman and associates her untouched body with the guitars above. A series of hands scaling guitar frets appear below, and add a teasing flair to this flat, blue background piece. A similar theme of sexual longing appears in Sleep (1971) Pastel yellow fills the background as a nude woman reclines against her partner’s feet, with her face turned away. Wesley is a master of mystery since it is not clear if the subject is experiencing sleep, rejection or a combination of the two.
Mail Order Blues, 1972
A new take on Greek mythology appears in Leda and the Man (1972) a spoof on the legend of Zeus as goose who once seduced Leda, the Queen of Sparta, as she slept next to her husband. However Wesley turns this theme around and portrays a sock-footed nude man who chases a frantic goose, Queen Leda. This strange sexual tension continues to assert itself in “The Last Gray Hound,” (1971) that portrays an old man bending down in front of a tall-standing gray hound dog. Two others appear on the right, arching back and lying on the floor, but wearing pink clothing like the one seen on the left. Whether this is intended to be a joke about extraneous sports like dog-racing or gymnastics, Wesley suggests that beast and man have managed to exist far more closely than thought.
Leche (1973) broaches the fiery topic of racism in a very multilayered fashion. A blonde woman wearing a blue skirt-suit sits on a stool to the left holding a glass of milk, or “leche,” as it is known Spanish. Three identical young girls lean in this woman’s direction, except the one closest to the glass is slightly darker than the other two, suggesting a bi-racial otherness that almost camouflages with the other figures in the painting. The savagery of class differences appears in Slave (1971) which simply portrays three gray kangaroos facing each other in the background as one holds onto the leash of small gray dog who stands at the center in the foreground.
This selection of paintings by John Wesley utilizes the style of Pop art to render dreams, fantasies and taboos that have been continually left out of mainstream discourse due to their sensational content. Moreover, by setting these frozen moments upon yellow and blue backgrounds, the artist creates a psychological ease and frames these ideas as separate icons even though they first appear to be further from any truth. Dreams are never linear but are rich in everything disorderly, telling us more about our orderly selves. Despite this bit of insight, fantasies cannot be packaged and sold like products, leaving them tucked far away within the margins of society.