Situated at the intersection of Pop Art, Minimalism, and Surrealism, American artist John Wesley is renowned for his sparse, graphic illustrations that bring to mind classic American cartoons of the 1950s, Japanese ukiyo-e wood block printing, patterned textile design, and fashion magazines. Utilizing a limited pastel color palette, Wesley repositions these recognizable figures into sometimes humorous, sometimes compromising positions. Having begun painting in 1953 while employed as an illustrator at Northrop Aircraft, like so many Pop artists Wesley was strongly influenced by commercial art practices and his visual vocabulary would continue to reflect these commercial beginnings throughout his career. At times the artist’s explicitly erotic imagery is tempered by its deadpan depiction, in reduced pink, cream, and brown flesh tones, and saturated blue backgrounds that lack any specificity of context. While often referred to as a surrealist, Wesley’s erotic subjects and their luxuriant depiction tend more toward a Rococo sensibility, albeit infused with updated 20th century characters.
For the High Line, Wesley reimagines his 1976 painting Nine Female Inmates of the Cincinnati Workhouse Participating in a Patriotic Tableau, a composition featuring nine women costumed to depict the “Betsy Ross” thirteen-star American flag. The women, adorned in the stars and stripes of the flag, can be viewed alternatively as clothed in the stripes of a prison uniform – a suggestion perhaps of the equation of national borders with the walls of a prison. Exemplary of Wesley’s ultimately ambiguous humor, this work was originally created in commemoration of the bicentennial celebration of the United States Declaration of Independence.
Photos by Timothy Schenck.