American pop artist John Wesley’s first show in Hong Kong will ‘flash’ pinks and ‘shine’ blues. The notoriously reclusive figure assures Bourree Lam in person.
John Wesley doesn’t do interviews. His gallerists’ usual reply to journalists is: ‘It’s just not possible’.
One ambitious art writer once tracked down the reclusive painter by searching the phonebook, and called Wesley cold to try to have a chat. A 2009 New York Times profile of the artist contained only a handful of quotes. Wesley, known as Jack to his friends, is not an art star posturing a reluctance to talk. In fact, he’s never played the art scene game. He is a painter, which to him means leaving the talking to other people.
Now 82 years old, Wesley agreed to a brief meeting with Time Out ahead of his upcoming show at de Sarthe Gallery. Wesley was at his regular table at North Square, a restaurant across the street from his apartment studio in New York City’s Greenwich Village, with his long-time gallerist Andrew Freiser. This weekly art family lunch is a ritual dating back many years, because despite being a recluse in the art world, Wesley is a very amicable and sociable person, with a jovial nature cracking jokes at every turn. In the flesh, he is – like his paintings – a truly playful character quietly taking in the world around him.
Wesley was born in Los Angeles in 1928, but moved to New York in the 1960s. “There are obvious reasons [to move to New York],” he explains. “It’s where the big children played. You get out of kindergarten, and you get to be a real artist.”
Since then, his work has surged in acclaim both critically and publicly. He’s exhibited widely at impressive institutions: from New York’s MoMA to a massive retrospective at the 2009 Venice Biennale, backed by the Prada Foundation. He’s a pop artist by genre, but there’s always been something more to hold on to in his paintings than vacuous reproductions. “I never thought about it – it’s just there,” says Wesley of painting. “I found a vocation in painting, and I’m still proving that.”
The languorous bodies in Wesley’s paintings are fleshy. He uses pastel pinks and cream blues, now idiosyncratically attributed to him, because they’re ‘nice colours’. His paintings are like casual sex: it can be romantic, it can be improvised, it can be filled with secret feelings and gestures that are in fact personal, but it’s always sexy and playful. Paired with a colour palate that makes it dance on air, it’s light, but it can be filled with meaning – if you want it to be.
Wesley doesn’t use models – in fact, he never has. His most iconic set of women – all Untitled – were traced from images from French Elle. Other paintings contain characters from the American cartoons like Dagwood, and Japanese geishas from Utamaro. These are not ubiquitous images, but certainly iconic ones. “I steal from everyone,” he jokes.
He always starts his works by tracing a photograph from a magazine, or a cartoon. That tracing is then examined, rotated, sometimes duplicated, and elaborated on larger pieces of paper. It’s in this process that the transformation from duplication to art occurs: the retracing shows his play with space and proportions, deforming the image and reforming it into his own compositions. Then, they are drawn onto canvases and painted.
American art critic Dave Hickey, a lover of Wesley’s art, likens his pop art to the Rococo movement. Rococo was a movement in late Baroque; ornate and playful, it was a reaction to the seriousness of high baroque. Wesley grins when he talks about his art, and when asked if he’d like the viewers to feel humour and wit, he replies characteristically: “That’s half right. You know that joke? Half-witted.”
Wesley has made more than 500 works in his lifetime, and for his first show in Hong Kong, there will be a range of his works from the 1960s to the 1980s. A particular highlight is Whiskey – a classic Wesley piece where pairs of legs stretch leisurely down from a cartoon speech bubble. Another highlight is Annunciation, the 1969 canvas stretched over a punch card clock. “It’s inflated,” says Wesley with glee. “The painting is bulging… like the pregnant woman!”
“John Wesley is a very important artist who, with his symbolic subject matter and stylish formal innovation, had a very unique style during the Pop Art period,” says Pascal de Sarthe, the owner of de Sarthe Gallery. In fact, de Sarthe has already sold a few works by Wesley to Asian collectors, and is hoping to bring greater awareness to Wesley’s work by holding this show.
Pop art always seems like it’s enough to see its reproduced image; Andy Warhol drilled that into our heads. But there’s a joy to John Wesley’s paintings that, like photographs of joyful people, never fully conveys the subject – and is better seen in person.
John Wesley’s exhibition is at de Sarthe Gallery Oct 1-Nov 12.