The Pace Gallery’s website features a photo of the painter John Wesley (1928–2022) standing cross-armed on a fire escape, his brylcreemed hair, thin-knotted tie, and deep-creased jeans lending him the anachronistic air of a Beat poet going to a job interview. The image suggests that peculiar blend of comic-book economy, surreal awe, and coolly erotic sensibility that marks the Wesley signature, but there’s also an inscrutability to it. The man, like his work, resists definition.
Wesley was always reticent to answer questions about his art. When asked how he achieved his effects, he responded, “Oh, I just traced it.” “I’m not a real painter,” he went on. “I’m getting away with murder. I don’t really know how. I can only do what I do.” Perhaps this explains why the critical writing on Wesley is so discrepant. No one seems able to take an accurate measurement of his work. Is he a “scholar of heartbreak,” or is he more coldly academic? Is he apolitical or does he “thematize white privilege”? Is he an acolyte of Magritte, or of Chirico?
Only Dave Hickey really seemed to get Wesley—probably because Hickey, like Wesley, spent part of his adolescence in California. Hickey not only saw the variety of influences playing out in Wesley’s work—with particular emphasis on the allegories of Rococo painting—but he also picked up on Wesley’s tone. Wesley’s paintings are funny, sexy, sometimes profound, and always pleasurable. Any adult with a libido and an eye for color can enjoy them. But Wesley’s is also the kind of work whose genesis you could find in any wing of the Met. He seems to essentialize entire traditions, both ancient and new.
The exhibition now showing at Pace’s New York gallery, “WesleyWorld: Works on Paper and Objects 1961–2004,” is strong evidence for the variety of Wesley’s influences and for the sheer pleasure of bright, well-made objects that allure without overplaying their hands. John Dillinger’s Last Ride (1970)—depicting a group of six sheriffs arranged in a circle, viewed from below, the outlines of their bodies creating a star-shaped pattern—could originate from Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s vegetable portraits or Busby Berkeley’s choreography. Sleeveless Sweater (1981), in which a young woman parades herself in nothing but a striped sleeveless top and a marriage ring, is like a perverted advertisement from Vogue circa 1953, if Vogue’s art director had been a horny Roy Lichtenstein. And across the room, a small painting called Joke (1973) unfurls its minute history like a Song Dynasty scroll.
Though Wesley slipped at times into the self-referentiality that plagued the worst of the après-Pop conceptual-art movement, he still exuded a degree of taste that many of his contemporaries lacked. Wesley’s is a highly developed aesthetic vocabulary mediated by a kind of sly, sophisticated, adult sensibility.
Wesley’s style transcends the merely popular, however, achieving artfulness through the sheer power of his authorial presence. We are repeatedly made aware that every line, every angle, every block of color is under his command. The drama in Wesley’s work hinges on this sense of control. His experiments with perspective are particularly satisfying: in his depictions of lovers and couples glancing cutely at each other, we’re positioned sometimes head-on, as in Herbalist (2000), elsewhere over the shoulder, as in Concord (2004), peering and leering and moving about the figures like a scene from Fellini.
The title of the Pace exhibition is fitting. The gallery is a portal into WesleyWorld—a world just distinct enough from ours to intrigue. WesleyWorld is highly manufactured and highly convincing. WesleyWorld is economical and shallow. WesleyWorld is a world of people imitating each other, of couples trading wily glances against a background of perfect porcelain blue. Indeed, WesleyWorld may appear a lot like the world many of us know to exist somewhere in the hills and valleys of Los Angeles.
To the peripatetic gallerygoer, it might feel odd to see these paintings against the cold walls of a major East Coast art institution. Wesley’s work is the sort you’d find in a sun-drenched interior somewhere by the Pacific Ocean. It belongs in that kind of arena; the chalky, dry blue of the works on paper conjures images of sea and sun. But it’s one of the several curious contradictions in Wesley’s story that, though thoroughly a Los Angeles child, the artist wasn’t really born until (a) he moved to New York in 1960 and (b) he saw the works of Jasper Johns in 1961. Was Wesley’s an East Coast sensibility that simply needed unleashing from the frivolities of a California upbringing? Or did the graveness of New York set loose in him a certain Pacific sensuality? Thus, again, the difficulty in categorizing him.
There is, if you choose there to be, a dark side to WesleyWorld. Critics never fail to remind us of the trauma of Wesley, age five, finding his father lying dead on the bathroom “with his shoes still on”; it’s the kind of neat detail that can seem to explain entirely even a body of work as capacious as Wesley’s. Yes—first the father’s death, then the year in the orphanage, then the anxiety attacks that plagued Wesley’s adult life. Isn’t this what we’re seeing in his off-kilter framings, his scenes of domestic disquietude, his voyeurism?
But this kind of haggling merely muddies the irresistible blues of WesleyWorld. When Donald Judd, an ardent supporter of Wesley’s work, coined the term “meta-representation” to describe it, he seemed to forget that the great thing about John Wesley is that we don’t need any of that nonsense. The work is so immediately involving and so vacantly poetic that, much like the Los Angeles of Wesley’s youth, it’s enough merely to stand before it to enter the dream of it all.