Portland art blog + news + exhibition reviews + galleries + contemporary northwest art

recent entries

Resist: Inauguration at Una Gallery
Early February links
First Thursday Picks February 2017
Dead tree media & dead horse flogging news
Post Snowpocalypse Weekend Picks
More Disjecta'd
New Year opportunities
Monday Integrity Links
First Thursday Picks January 2017
Jason Berlin + Alanna Risse at Rainmaker
Saying goodby to 2016
Mid December Links

recent comments

categories

 

Book Review
Calls for Artists
Design Review
Essays
Interviews
News
Openings & Events
Photoblogs
Reviews
Video
Links
About PORT

regular contributors

 

Tori Abernathy
Amy Bernstein
Katherine Bovee
Emily Cappa
Patrick Collier
Arcy Douglass
Megan Driscoll
Jesse Hayward
Sarah Henderson
Jeff Jahn
Kelly Kutchko
Drew Lenihan
Victor Maldonado
Christopher Moon
Jascha Owens
Alex Rauch
Gary Wiseman

archives

 

Guest Contributors
Past Contributors
February 2017
January 2017
December 2016
November 2016
October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
January 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005

contact us

 

Contact us

search

 


syndicate

 

Atom
RSS

powered by

 

Movable Type 3.16

This site is licensed under a

 

Creative Commons License

Tuesday 06.16.09

« ArtSpark: Icebreaker | Main | summer show »

John Wesley's Battle of Przemysl at PAM

Battle_Wesley_Full.jpg
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?

Battle_Wesley_grey_soldier.jpg

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 knows?

As I mentioned last week, Wesley doesn't quite fit into any easy art historical taxonomy. 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 Przemysl 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 Foundation 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.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on June 16, 2009 at 9:12 | Comments (0)


Comments

Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)


Remember me?


s p o n s o r s
Site Design: Jennifer Armbrust   •   Site Development: Philippe Blanc & Katherine Bovee