John Wesley's Battle of Przemysl
, 1969, 34 x 96 inches
One of my favorite works in the Portland
Art Museum's permanent collection
is John Wesley's simultaneously hilarious
and wickedly dark painting, Battle of Przemysl
. It's a sphynx like painting that may or may not be making a strange comment
on; military expectations, conformity, homoeroticism, politics, the weird ideals
of war, wartime music and historical head scratching all in one neat package
with a thick black border. That border is not unlike Jo
Baer's classic minimalist works
, yet this work couldn't be more different
than his former wife's work. Instead, it traffics in inference and fetishes the act of stalemate.
Also, Battle of Przemysl
is ambiguously dry and I like the fact that it is one of Wesley's
war-related scenes, not one of his social bon mots
(which are good but allow some people to
mistake him for being something like a cartoonist in the New Yorker).
What is clear is that Battle of Przemysl
's composition uses the thick black
border to create tension between the purposefully synthetic scene and the impending
outcome of the cartoonish military procession (the far right soldier's foot is
stepping into the border
breaking the plane and possibly signifying how
ideas get tested in the real world). All the while, a pink soldier sneaks up from behind the procession with
a knife. Notably, the soldier on the far right is gray, not colorful like the other figures
for some reason. So is the gray soldier indicative of an active moment between colorful wartime expectations and even more
colorful execution in history? ...the battle did become a movie. Or maybe it's the opposite, the waning gray figure symbolizes
a once colorful pre-battle enthusiasm?
Also, Wesley loves obscure title material so one assumes there is a reason he
dug this obscure battle up. Historically, in the earlier parts of WWI
the Battle of Przemysl
was a harbinger of the Russian military's inability
to ascertain their enemy's strength and the lurking revolutionary dangers that arose in
1917. Is that a prescient "commie pinko" soldier in hand to hand combat
at the back of the line (also sporting a boot that breaks the black border)? Maybe. Was this
a Vietnam piece? Maybe. Was Wesley siding with the prevailing strategic paranoia
of the time that the communists could strike anywhere and needed to be contained?
Maybe, maybe the opposite. Did he consider the ideas and goals of capitalism and communism in confrontation
with each other as a way to emerge from constant conflict with a clear winner?
define winner? Wesley's paintings never show a winner or loser. What;s more these rainbow
men might be fighting a war, then again they might be lovers
who the hell
As I mentioned last week, Wesley doesn't quite fit into any easy art historical
. He isn't really a; pop, minimalist or surrealist artist but I can
see why some try to shoehorn him into those boxes, most art people are attracted
to sphyx like ciphers in hopes they can eventually impress themselves. Actually,
I think that's what his friend Donald Judd appreciated most about Wesley, he
always shows all of his cards
but you'd be damned to tell what kind of
deck he's dealing from. Instead, with Battle of Przemys
l it's like he
deals the viewer a Polaroid of 5 aces and a trivial pursuit card. How do you
place a bet when dealt a hand like that? For me Wesley takes Aristotle's edicts
about art and ambivalence and has a field day.
Sure, Wesley's graphically reduced images on flat canvas planes look like pop
art (Ruscha?), the sequential and clean compositions parallel minimalism and there is something
deadpan and Magritte-like in his association to surrealism. The only artist he
actually reminds me of is Giacometti, whose similarly mute and haunted-ly ascetic
work seems like Wesley's more serious older brother.
Admittedly, those tangential associations are inevitable but the actual work
ultimately repulses all attempts to derive definitive comprehension. Instead,
Wesley's paintings are probably what aliens would produce if these hypothetical
"space people" decided to stop probing cattle and instead decided
to mess with very wealthy art collectors minds. Understanding Wesley is like
getting in solid a one-liner in the company of Groucho Marx
it just ain't
gonna happen but man is it fun to watch anyone try.
Thus, for me
Wesley's art represents a kind of super intelligence that becomes
a kind of aesthetic and intellectual horse latitude for mere humans like Dave
Hickey or Robert Storr. Each successful painting represents a kind of intense,
purposeful stalemate that says yes to everything in order to mean nothing. It's
wonderfully existential stuff, presaging Andy Kaufman
or lesser local artist/comedians
like Brad Adkins or Joe Macca who both traffic in a similar kind
of up front obfuscation in response to the anticipation of anticipation, but Wesley's
got more and better art jokes. Wesley also reminds me of Buster Keaton, but he's
purposefully less entertaining.
Art historically Wesley resembles Andrew Wyeth, Stuart Davis and Francis Bacon
meaning he doesn't resemble anything, he simply stands apart from the hot styles
of his day, he's Res ipsa loquitur
and essentially alien. Experientially, I liken
his best works to those odd scenes in a David Lynch productions
one is left
more perplexed after the viewing, yet there is so much clarity when before the scene. Overall, Wesley's
work is an inherently idiomatic example of his obscure but highly refined pursuits
so much so I don't really think about the man, just the work.
As luck has it Portland's Battle of Przemysl
is a very good early Wesley...
and though the Prada
retrospective originally sought to include it... their momentary
loss is our permanent gain. It is usually on display on the 3rd floor of the
Portland Art Museum's Jubitz Center.