In 1963, when reviewing the work of John (or “Jack” as his friends called him) Wesley, Donald Judd wrote that if his paintings are to be defined within the realm of Pop art, they are more accurately definable as “retroactive pop.” Judd elaborates, describing Wesley’s figures and patterns as forms that come from the past (the nineteenth-century), and that “the forms selected, the shapes to which they are unobtrusively altered, the order used, and the small details are humorous and goofy. This becomes a cool, psychological oddness.... Ambiguity is one of Wesley's main devices."
His contemporaries, canonic Pop artists like Warhol, Lichtenstein, Wesselman, and Rosenquist used 1960s TV, advertising, and comics culture as source material, strategically reproducing images of objects and icons as they related to commodity culture, celebrating media overload and widespread consumption. What distinguishes Wesley from this group was that he took the “mass” out of Pop art and made it coolly personal and intimate. Behind the artifice of his schematic style —recognizable by flat fields of nursery palette color and crisply, slightly distorted cartoonish forms— his subjects are somehow warm-blooded and real. Because his subjects derive from images of yesteryear, rather than the present, the narrative tableaux become relatable through the intimacy inherent to nostalgia.
In addition to his distinctive, posterish style, throughout Wesley’s thematic domain recurs the techniques of seriality and repetition (perhaps this is what prompted an intense dialogue with minimalists like Flavin and Judd), which both emphasize and de-escalate psychological tension and emotional associations. Technically, these patterns and serialities are hand-made rather than mechanically produced: the subtle variations in their apparent uniformity in fact negates the subjects’ sameness. No two repeating forms are identical, and even the hard-edge lines waver with humane dimension. If Pop art confirms the notion that we are alike in our needs and desires; Wesley’s retroactive pop underlines that although our desires and needs may appear universal, they are singular, and unknowable, even and often to ourselves.
While Pop portrays the mainstream desire for mediated consumption, Wesley's work elicits an almost nostalgic desire for unmediated human intimacy, affirming his unique form of personal Pop. Wesley’s position, however, is complicated by his male heteronormativity, which has remained consistent since he emerged with depictions of the female figure in 1962. Despite this phallocentric position from which Wesley (and most of his peer male painters) emerged in the early 1960s, his paintings contain an ambiguity and subtlety that goes further: the desire to understand intimacy inevitably leads to manifold subject positions and questions of gender and sexuality. From his first paintings of Maidens, to variations on Blondie, aestheticized Utamaro geishas, or flawless, groomed women pulled from fashion advertisements, Wesley generally seeks to illustrate the more positive aspects of the female experience: pleasure, pride, play, camaraderie, and motherhood, among others. His depiction of women borrows as much from an idea of objectified commodification as it does from an attempt to understand the experience of the “other”. As eloquently summarized by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in Wesley’s 2000 Retrospective, “With his delicate sensibility and profound humanity, he found a way to portray this desire [for women] in such a way that he could question his own (male, authoritarian) gaze.”
Throwback Jack is a group exhibition that explores the legacy of John Wesley as interpreted through the work of five painters emerging in the first decades of the 21st century — Math Bass, Ivy Haldeman, Becky Kolsrud, Ebecho Muslimova, and Emily Mae Smith— who retroactively redeploy Wesley’s pictorial strategies stylistically and thematically, yet further reclaim the body from the traditionally patriarchal/heteronormative subject position that Wesley evidently distrusted. Although the painters’ subjects share in Wesley’s relationship to postwar media culture, they further infuse politically feminist innuendo as ideological commentary on the social space of the body —through fantasia, paradox, equivocality, surreality, reductionism, etc.— reiterating the multidimensionality of perspectives from which to understand and witness the figure today.
The humor employed in the paintings of Ivy Haldeman, like Wesley’s, is disarming. The comical compositions often contain a double-entendre, leaving that which is explicit and that which is implied at an unsettling distance: the subjects’ seductive gestures are sensuous due to that which is omitted. Two business suits alone are simply garments; yet two business suits filled ebulliently to the brim with the perceived void of two female figures, bespeaks of a perplexing form of sexuality.
The women who traverse throughout the pictorial space in the paintings of Becky Kolsrud are simulacra of the stereotyped, cosmeticized women portrayed in the pages of contemporary fashion magazines: unblemished complexion, manicured fingernails, flawless coifs of hair, full and pouty lips, bright-eyed, delicate and finally, emotionally opaque (and unavailable). Kolsrud’s women however inhabit impossible landscapes, existing (alarmingly) without a body, with limbs disjointed and digits scattered. The scenarios brought to life in these artists’ tableaux often exist within a sort of floating landscape without horizon lines: Whether depicting commodities or body parts, they comment on the fragmentary shape that consumerist, capitalist society gives to our most basic (and perhaps vapid) desires.
The dreamy style and painterly techniques of Emily Mae Smith, like Wesley, interstitially waver between Pop and Surrealism, without adhering to either. The puffy, misty clouds floating along the backdrop of a blue sky reference Magritte, while Smith’s recurring animated broomstick avatar is reminiscent of Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Wesley’s stylized, ornamental eyelashes are an iconic trademark within his oeuvre; they also hold a special emphasis in Smith’s Big Sea of Tears. The anthropomorphized broomstick is turned from the viewer, their long, spiny eyelashes jutting out into the big blue sky. The extremely close crop heightens the emotional tension as watery pearls of tears ooze from its eye. We can practically imagine its mascara-stained cheeks.
The acute restriction in both perspective and framing sets the stage for a crisis of seeing, being, and being seen. The subjects depicted in the paintings throughout this exhibition tread wobbly, liminal boundaries: the interchange and uncertainty between the subjects’ flirtatiousness and shame, confidence and reticence, and their voyeuristic or exhibitionist tendencies.
Haldeman’s absurdly animated hot dog character possesses an elegant self-assurance; its form is both phallic (the sausage) and yonic (the bun), and its container both personified and commodified. Situated within a nondimensional plane, its nascence and narrative are further ambiguous. Like the women in Wesley’s Mary Lou and Her Other Sister, this character is captured in a moment of private contemplation; eyes lowered and coyly turned from the viewer. In being positioned as vulnerable, they are trusting the gaze of the viewer, permitting the viewer’s appropriation of their experience.
Ambiguity of form continues in the paintings of Math Bass, which may initially read as graphic abstraction. Like Wesley however, the contours and shapes almost always imply the absence or presence of a figure, be it human or animal, or even commodity. The emphasis on signs and symbols relates Bass’s work to a tradition of Pop, and like Wesley, their semi-abstract and patterned forms maintain a cryptic and evocative distance. In Newz!, bodiless limb juts horizontally across the canvas: the fullness of the figure, of the body that may be attached to the leg, are beyond what our eyes can frame. It is this withholding, this restrictive device, that enhances the enigma of the human subject, especially while paired with three other forms: a jagged yellow line which may read as landscape, abstraction, or another figure; an equivocal pink, fleshy and floating, orb; and a jet-black animal form.
The graphic, almost cartoon-like paintings and drawings of Ebecho Muslimova are animated by the complex life of the artist’s persona alter-ego, “Fatebe,” who parallels Wesley’s repeated use of Bumstead as a stand-in for himself, or his father, as an “anti-hero”. Fatebe is a roly-poly character who is often situated in outrageous scenarios that throw her inner emotional states into haywire and all over the canvas. Muslimova uses Fatebe’s body less as a commentary on the female body, but as a mould through which to display some of mankind’s most fragile and masked emotions, states and qualities: eroticism, shame, desire, humility, fear, debauchery and anxiety (among so many others). Neither Wesley nor Muslimova are painterly per se: both rely on their professional backgrounds as draftspeople to turn illustration into painting by employing the techniques of collage and grid expansion.
Where Muslimova’s work contrasts with Wesley is in the full frontal, explicit positioning of the female body. Whereas in Wesley’s work, the woman’s body is never fully visible —usually strategically cropped or framed— Fatebe offers a direct portal to and through her body.
Throughout this exhibition, and amongst the artists included, that which is attractive repulses; that which is intimate creates distance; that which is cartoonish demonstrates the real; the figure becomes ground; and that which is explicit remains cryptic. All these dyads dialectically exchange place or trajectory, at times even within one single work.
The vital departure between Wesley's oeuvre (through his final paintings in 2011) and the new subject positions in the paintings of Bass, Haldeman, Kolsrud and Muslimova, is not so much a matter of difference in style or painterly techniques, but the manifestation of a dramatic shift in meaning, perception, and positioning of body politics and its representation in media in the first decades of the 21st century. If we are to review the trajectory of figurative painting throughout the 20th Century (from the dominant phallocentric gaze of Picasso to de Kooning, for example), a significant divergence coincides with Wesley’s development of a personal (or retroactive) pop: postwar subjectivity in figurative art arrived with a crucial dissolution of the dominantly traditional “male gaze”. Owing to recent advancements in women’s, lesbian, gay, transgender and queer rights at the turn of the millennium —signaling a more universal acceptance of kaleidoscopic subject positions— this vital shift is amplified by the young artists included in Throwback Jack, where oppositional subjective evaluation becomes newly obtained from the position of the viewer, rather than only from the painters themselves.
-Amanda Schmitt, New York, 2019