Goldsmiths Curatorial Critique

John Wesley: Retrospective 2009

Posted in Reviews by ericashiozaki on October 19, 2009

John Wesley Retrospective Exhibition at the Fondazione Prada, Venice Biennale 2009

Curated by Germano Celant

06.06.09 – 04.10.09


Photo credit: Fondazione Prada

Art historically speaking, John Wesley’s work sits on a rather precarious position, belonging to no place but every place at the same time.  In the past, it had been remarked as pop art; later associated with minimalism through Donald Judd, with visible traces of surrealism and dada, along side the detachment of Renee Magritte, while labels him as an illustrator.  His visual language is broad, enticing, tactful and complex, with obscure and humorous subject matters that seemed to be at once wild, yet restrained, with a faint touch of misery and elegance.


Photo Credit: Fondazione Prada

The retrospective exhibition at Fondazione Prada (Venice Biennale), highlights Wesley’s obsessive use of colours, his repetitive application of similar or same shapes, figures and characters, that are boldly painted on medium sized canvases, dispersed across the grand venue.  His carefully constructed compositions and contents are often accompanied by a very simple subject matter, added with a few figures or elements, as if each painting is a single segment/moment of a life-long saga.  When hung together, these segments adjoin and correspond to one another, and walking through the room is an experience close to that of flicking through a mass of un-collated and unorganized family photos.  They may not carry a cohesive story line or a linear narrative, but the recognizable colours and fictional characters carry a sense of story telling, and an undisturbed musical rhythm which one becomes in synch with. His paintings are aligned with movement and rhythm, and ones’ eyes dynamically follow the two-dimensional planes, hung at alternating heights and positions. Furthermore, the lack of depth on Wesley’s flat surfaces vanish any possibilities of his paintings becoming virtual ‘windows’ to another world, but remain merely as meticulously positioned images, that have the flexibility to be placed on top of each other, without being reduced to a salon style hanging. Although the paintings respond and react against each other, they still retain the ability to stand independently, without being engulfed by adjacent paintings.  His strong outlines and white frames contain the composition within, creating a threshold of us and them, real and surreal; producing the agility to mix, yet not melt or drown into their own surroundings. A point of reference can be taken from the paintings hung in corridors that adjoin the exhibition rooms.


Photo Credit: Fondazione Prada

To address its historical linearity of the retrospective, black corridors are used as a curatorial partition, as well as a transition stage, dividing each room within the concatenation.  The narrow hallways are decorated with bright texts on top of charcoal black walls, where Wesley’s canvases are exposed.  Here, the curator of the exhibition Germano Celant had cleverly distinguished demarcation points from the rest of the exhibition for a smooth and expected transitioning, rather than achieving an elusive and empty space, which carelessly and breathlessly unites all rooms.

In his catalogue essay, Celant confirms the negation of Abstract Expressionism in Wesley’s work, and this exhibition beckons to ask what the term indicates, in relation to Wesley’s oeuvre. In my eyes Wesley’s paintings are not completely foreign to Abstract Expressionism, and qualities like indifference, impersonal or inhuman, seem to be antithetical to Wesley’s language.  In fact, I find his works incredibly ‘human’ and close, not distant.  By observing the contours of his subject very intimately, the residue of humanness, limitation of human activity, becomes apparent. This residue and ‘limitation’ I speak of is overtly abundant in his quivering black outlines, painted-over background, and his persistent study of the same colour for years and years.  These elements compel one to think and to rethink of Greenbergian ‘objectness’ and ‘abandonment of illusion’ through Abstract Expressionism, or even further, Michel Freid’s ‘Art and Objecthood, 1967.

*More images and information can be found on Fondazione Prada Website:


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