When my brother and I were children, my father would take us to football games at the Yale Bowl. Neither of us was really the football sort. So we would go play under the bleachers at the top of the stadium, catching glimpses of the elusive-seeming game as we hung out beneath the splintering, blue-painted wood beams. This show of early works by John Wesley recalled for me the feel of those fall afternoons. Not only do Wesley’s paintings and painted objects from the first half of the 1960s frequently display the distinctive blue of those bleachers, Yale blue, a kind of civic blue similar to that of the United States flag (and postal service, for which he worked at the start of this period) and darker than the pastel hue he used in subsequent years, but also his work suggests a curious, somewhat outsider-ish view of the traditional culture of the American male.
One of the first paintings you saw was the 1962 Shield for Kicking Machine. While all of Wesley’s paintings embrace the flat look of signs, his early compositions tend to do so more completely than his later ones, by presenting themselves as actual plaques or emblems. Here, for instance, the image is a heraldic shield, with a bottom portion bearing blue and gray vertical stripes, and an upper band of blue flanked by two triskelion-like symbols that, rather grotesquely, combine eight bent legs in place of the usual three. Despite the vaguely sinister aspect of the multi-legged forms, the shield reads as an homage to the nobility of athletic battle (particularly when considered alongside other pieces Wesley made at the time, including paintings, not shown here, in which baseball players or Olympic figures are encircled by floral garlands). Nearby hung a larger heraldic diptych from the same year, Notre Dame. The two panels form a painted image in which the university’s main building appears vignetted by an ornamental frame. The composition resembles an official school motif rendered subjectively, in Wesley’s characteristic cartoon style, in which forms are reduced to basic shapes and even relatively straight lines seem to waver.
At the center of the room were two painted tables whose bases depict women in varying states of dress or undress, their poses and clothing (or lack thereof) evoking the commercial world of pinups or advertisements. On one, the women represent different stages of pregnancy, including post-, with a seductive figure in a bra and half-slip holding a swaddled baby. One of the most compelling works in the exhibition was the painting The Aviator’s Daughters (1963). Two girls stand against a black ground surrounded by a border of biplanes. Nothing quite coheres. Their poses are awkward, their faces impenetrable. Their clothing is hard to place—dance costumes? party attire?—and the biplanes conjure a peculiar picture of the male indicated by the title, conveying at once paternal authority (given their framing function) and juvenile aspiration (given their toylike rendering, which recalls wallpaper in a boy’s bedroom).
Underlying Wesley’s work as a whole is a palpable preoccupation with forces that, for better or worse, bind males together in this country. In the early pieces on view here, such forces are seen to manifest in the alumni network; in the patrilineal or fraternal pageantry of heraldic devices; in nautical pursuits and hobbies like golf, both of which were alluded to in ink drawings exhibited in a back gallery. There is the boyish pride taken in one’s own sexual maturation and the engaging of one’s libido. There is the assuming of common roles like those of provider, team member and military leader (this last subject seen with an image of Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant painted on one of the tabletops). In 2007, Andrea K. Scott wrote in the New York Times that Wesley’s interests, compared with those of the Pop artists with whom he is often grouped, “have always been more interior, fixing on the neurotic, erotically inclined psyche of the American male, with its rage and frustration, longing and loss.” That, as a child, Wesley lost his father to a stroke certainly had implications for the work he went on to do. It’s the searching quality that gives his images their strange, affecting appeal.