Pop Art Paintings of John Wesley: The Point Where Utamaro Meets Chic Young
31 May 2021 

Pop Art Paintings of John Wesley: The Point Where Utamaro Meets Chic Young

John Wesley (b. 1928) is an American painter and printmaker. Being influenced by American comics and obsessed with eroticism in a Freudian way, Wesley is often considered a pop artist. The painter himself keeps silent about the definitions. On the contrary, curators, art historians, and journalists try to place his works under such categories as pop art (Tom Wesselman) and surrealism (Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico).

Libidinous Allegories

Some critics draw peculiar parallels, so does Dave Hickey comparing Wesley to Francois Boucher in terms of libidinous allegories. The Rococosurrealist-pop art painter only shrugs and goes on producing his pictures, which look like a light, minimalistic trip.

John Wesley pop art erotic

Fig. 1. John Wesley with his works at his Venice opening in June, 2009 (nytimes.com)

From a Draftsman to an Artist

Reading the biographies of modern artists, we often obtain information on their professional or family background, early studies at art schools, etc. The case of John Wesley seems uncommon. Having started painting at the age of 22, Wesley hadn’t had any training before. He wasn’t influenced by the family, as well: his father passed away when the future artist was only five years old. Aspiration for art stemmed weirdly from the necessity to earn a living since the early years. Young Wesley worked as a dishwasher and later as a draftsman for the Northrop aircraft company.

John Wesley squirrels

Fig. 2. Squirrels, 1964 (moma.org)

John Wesley Suzanna and the Lugosis (May I Cut In?)

Fig. 3. Suzanna and the Lugosis (May I Cut In?), 1972 (fredericksfreisergallery.com)

John Wesley

Fig. 4. December 5, 1998 (blogspot.com)

John Wesley erotic pop art

Fig. 5. butdoesitfloat.com

John Wesley Van Nuys Honeymoon

Fig. 6. Van Nuys Honeymoon, 2002 (waddingtoncustot.com)

John Wesley nude buttocks

Fig. 7. butdoesitfloat.com

John Wesley nudes

Fig. 8. Getting off the Subway at St. Tropez, 1979 (grooveliaison.com)

John Wesley Caryn and Robin

Fig. 9. Caryn and Robin, 1968 (blogspot.com)

John Wesley Undressing

Fig. 10. Undressing, 1994 (waddingtoncustot.com)

John Wesley pop artist

Fig. 11. Irish Pals, 2001 (waddingtoncustot.com)

Leitmotifs and Obsessions

Besides the above-mentioned, Wesley is said to have worked for some time as an illustrator for the avian industry. Thus, birds are one of the recurring motifs in his paintings. The work “Leda and the Man, (Fig.13)” 1972, is a curious example with the ancient story undergoing a remarkable transformation: the initiator of intercourse appears here as an aroused man who pursues a scared bird. The romantic glory of Zeus-penetrator hanging on the walls of great museums ends up in sarcastic dethronement.

John Wesley dream

Fig. 12 .tumblr.com

John Wesley Leda and the Man

Fig. 13. Leda and the Man, 1972 (fredericksfreisergallery.com)

Zoo Dreams

Approaching the Japanese influence in Wesley’s pictures, we can start with ones that engage women dreaming of birds or horned animals. The implied theme of sexual interaction inevitably leads us to Hokusai‘s octopi oeuvre. The topic of erotic dreams also expands in the field of fetishism. The picture “Dream of White Feet, (Fig.18)” 2000, seems to have a subtle relation to the Asian way of depicting women with white porcelain skin.

John Wesley Bulls and Bed

Fig. 14. Bulls and Bed, 1986 (waddingtoncustot.com)

John Wesley Dream of Frogs

Fig. 15. Dream of Frogs, 1965 (butdoesitfloat.com)

John Wesley Rhinos

Fig. 16. Dream of Unicorns, 1965 (smithsonianmag.com)

John Wesley Girl with Cloth Rabbits

Fig. 17. Girl with Cloth Rabbits, 1998 (waddingtoncustot.com)

John Wesley Dream of White Feet

Fig. 18. Dream of White Feet, 2000 (blogspot.com)

The Great Waves

The second great print which comes to mind when we recall Hokusai is “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” Interestingly, John Wesley’s collection contains several depictions of splashing water. The still minimalism of these works with birds floating above the landscape reminds of later Japanese print sets. The smooth lineation typical for Wesley’s pieces also makes them relate to classical shunga by Hokusai.

John Wesley Splash

Fig. 19. Splash, 1979 (artsy.net)

John Wesley Wimpy’s Dive

Fig. 20. Wimpy’s Dive, 1993 (juxtapoz.com)

Utamaro and Chic Young

Depending upon the viewer’s cultural horizon, Wesley’s manner can be derived from American comics or Japanese prints. Among his pieces, there are at least four combining Japanese motifs with Western pop culture, namely with Dagwood Bumstead’s character from Chic Young’s “Blondie.” Such works as “Bumstead and Dead Geisha,” 2006, or “Utamaro Washing, Bumstead Sleeping,” 2003, based on Utamaro’s piece from “Five Shades of Ink in the North Country” series, can persuasively answer why art curators label Wesley as a surrealist. There seems to be no solid ground for combining such different phenomena, yet Wesley managed to do it in his elusive splashes of subconsciousness as did surrealists.

John Wesley Utamaro Drinking, Bumstead Mad

Fig. 21. Utamaro Drinking, Bumstead Mad, 2003 (fredericksfreisergallery.com)

 

John Wesley Orange Wine

Fig.22   Orange Wine, 2003 (espresso.repubblica.it)

John Wesley Utamaro pop art

Fig. 23. artforum.com

John Wesley Bumstead and Dead Geisha

Fig. 24. Bumstead and Dead Geisha, 2006 (artforum.com)

John Wesley Utamaro geisha

Fig. 25. Left: Utamaro Washing, Bumstead Sleeping, 2003; Right: Utamaro, the courtesan from Five Shades of Ink in the North Country series (ukiyo-e.org)

Old Blues Songs

Wesley himself says: “I didn’t go out and try to be a surrealist. It was just fun doing what I was doing.” He is the kind of artist who hates theorizing and never reflects on what he does letting his work speak for itself. The viewers are free to consider them through the prism of Roy Lichtenstein and other pop-art representatives. Just as they are welcomed to draw more sophisticated or poetic analogies. As Randy Kennedy mentions, “With titles like “Hungarian Dog Wrestler,” “Debbie Millstein Swallowed a Thumbtack” and “Bumstead in Bedlam,” they [the works] can suggest old blues songs sprung surreally into the visual world, a kind of postmodern channeling of the “old, weird America” written about by Greil Marcus and mined by Bob Dylan.”

John Wesley Mail Order Blues

Fig. 26. Mail Order Blues, 1972 (anothermag.com)

John Wesley Woman on Top

Fig. 27. Woman on Top (culturainquieta.com)

John Wesley Untitled (Pink Leg)

Fig. 28. Untitled (Pink Leg), 2004 (waddingtoncustot.com)

John Wesley Brown Woman Stretching

Fig. 29. Brown Woman Stretching, 1995 (culturainquieta.com)

John Wesley Untitled (Woman Dreaming)

Fig. 30. Untitled (Woman Dreaming), 1996 (juxtapoz.com)

John Wesley Brown Nude

Fig. 31. Brown Nude (seavestcollection.org)

John Wesley Two Girls

Fig. 32. Two Girls (seavestcollection.org)

John Wesley Bite

Fig. 33. Bite, 1992 (blogspot.com)

John Wesley Tattoo

Fig. 34. Tattoo, 1992 (culturainquieta.com)

John Wesley Untitled

Fig. 35. Untitled, 2011-2012 (culturainquieta.com)

Click HERE for the Pop Art porn of Tom Wesselmann…!!

Sources: Wikipedia.org; nytimes.com; artnet.com

What do you think about John Wesley’s art? Leave your reaction in the comment box below…..!!

About the author
Darya is a philologist who lives and works in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. She is specialized in Russian literature.
JB
By

JB

on 31 May 2021

Another great find added to the SG. Interesting artist. Great sense of humor. The couple in bed, fig. 1, is obviously "lifted" from 1892s Toulouse-Lautrec's "Le Lit," at the Musée d'Orsay.

Darya
By

Darya

on 31 May 2021

Thank you! Yes, you're right, especially considering Wesley's adherence to classics.

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