When John Wesley makes paintings of women, which he does very often, he makes paintings about men. Against powder-blue backgrounds, he floods their lithe bodies with a flat shade of pale pink, except for a hotter tone used for lips, nails and nipples. These are pictures of heterosexual male desire. When men appear, they tend to be woefully disproportioned and eccentrically dressed. His women, by contrast, are the sylphs of an imagination fired by the dreamy perfection of women in magazines and dampened by the comic pathos of real-life encounters.
This exhibition – Wesley’s first at David Kordansky Gallery – contained few of the octogenarian artist’s trademark animals and no Bumstead or Utamaro, the most familiar of his cartoon protagonists. Instead, it focused on paintings of men with women, and on Wesley’s rarely shown sculptures from the mid-1960s and ’70s.
The exhibition’s no-nonsense title, ‘Objects and Paintings’, is disingenuous: Wesley, it becomes clear, has long strived to confuse the distinction between the two. Bikini (1979) is cut, just as a wearable garment would be, from fabric (in this case, canvas), but it also serves as a flat pictorial space for a seascape with puffy white clouds. Broadly speaking, sculptures fall into two categories: decorated found objects such as Bird Lovers (1973), a painted motorcycle helmet; and sculptures like Pillow (1975) and Ill Fitting Bikini Top (c. 1975), three-dimensional abstractions of common items, made from painted canvas stretched on wood.
Wesley delights in orchestrating meetings: between men and women, but also between animals and people, incongruous objects and uncomprehending languages. (Remember that Bumstead and Utamaro derive, respectively, from Chic Young’s comic strip ‘Blondie’ and from the 18th-century woodblock prints of Kitagawa Utamaro. No wonder it never worked out.) In Bird Lovers, nude women curl their bodies into balls while a bird flaps into the air above them. It’s an odd way to decorate a motorcycle helmet, but maybe it makes a certain sense – emblems of protection, freedom and eroticism swirling around the head of the rider.
Other meetings are equally unexpected. Nutcracker (1973) is fixed to a dish onto which the artist has painted a fat pink frog. Notwithstanding the testicular associations summoned by the title, the proximity of the operational nutcracker to the image of soft amphibian flesh is physically discomfiting. A salve to this sensation, however, is Wesley’s cool palette and streamlined graphic style; nothing really terrible could happen in such a sunny, saccharine world. Could it?
It is surprising to note that, despite this sense of brightness, the light in these paintings does not come from the sun, nor does it cast shadows. In Wesley’s world, there is no distinction between indoors and out, day and night. Which is ironic, because much of his subject matter arises from these contrasting modes of behaviour: those things that happen indoors, after dark (all of these paintings are of undressed couples, at least two of whom are in bed) and the moments when the seams of discretion or desire burst open, inconveniently, in broad daylight. The sculpture Ill Fitting Bikini Top, for instance, represents the latter phenomenon in abstracted, geometric form – blue rectangles around a pink box with, at one corner, an immodestly exposed nipple. As with the rectilinear white Pillow, it’s an affectionate jibe at Minimalism (Wesley’s first wife was Jo Baer and he was friends with Dan Flavin and Donald Judd), but it is also a rather literal joke about the objectification of a female body.
Wesley has never been afraid of taboos. Picnic Basket (1965), for instance, is a wooden box adorned with a repeating image of a grinning man, reportedly based on the Congolese politician Moïse Tshombe; the open lid reveals, painted inside, the breasts and blonde pubic hair of a white woman. Who knows what Wesley was thinking when he decided to paint that. Like certain other male artists of his generation – Tom Wesselmann, William Copley and Peter Saul spring to mind – Wesley presses at the limits of what might be considered crass or misogynistic in order to show how those qualities are ingrained into popular culture, all the while never claiming to be immune to the weaknesses of the flesh himself. That’s partly the nature of Pop, the movement with which Wesley is sometimes aligned, but also to do with the legacy of Surrealism, which encouraged its adherents to follow their imaginations wherever they may lead.
Ill Fitting Bikini Top is an uncomfortable work because the joke seems to be on the woman, and it’s not a very good joke at that. Wesley is more graceful and sincere when he is picturing male experience: Chocolate Major (2002), for instance, which features a fat man painted entirely in brown (could this be a rare Wesleyan shadow?) or Blue Blanket (2000), in which a naked bald sad-sack grabs at a blanket while his comely bed-mate casts her eyes wearily past him, perhaps to the door. With each couple in the exhibition, the eyes of one are open and the eyes of the other closed or downcast. Really, these are not pictures of meetings but missed connections, failing communication, the inability of one person to reach out to another.