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John Wellington: Temple Tomb Fortress Ruin

The Lodge Gallery - New York

By Kim Power

Reminiscent of heroic fantasy à la Frank Frazetta, John Wellington’s exhibition, “Temple Tomb Fortress Ruin,” at The Lodge Gallery speaks both to the artist’s personal vision and our current sociopolitical climate. Wellington has participated in exhibitions throughout the United States and France, most notably at The Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (”Chateaux Bordeaux,” 1988) and the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, N.Y. (”Representing Representation,” 1998).

Challenging notions of political correctness, Wellington’s paintings include naked and scantily dressed Asian women and African Americans in “Oriental” costumes. Wellington does not deny the fetishistic quality of his work, nor does he apologize for their subtly erotic representation. In Erotism: Death and Sensuality, 1962, French intellectual Georges Bataille wrote, “Man is everlastingly in search of an object outside himself but this object answers the innerness of the desire. The choice of object always depends on the personal taste of the subject; even if it lights upon a woman whom most men would choose, the decisive factor is often an intangible aspect of this woman, not an objective quality.” Elucidating, Wellington states, “Everything I paint or sculpt has a fetishistic element, whether it’s fruit or a black man or a fortress or a tree or an Asian woman or white woman or a white man-when I start to look at an object and devote hundreds of hours into realizing it, the whole idea is to elevate it into something beyond itself.” Wellington’s intent lies in his own personal ideal of beauty, which to him is sacrosanct.

John Wellington, You and Me, 2009/2016, oil and copper leaf on aluminum, 68” x 48.” Courtesy of John Wellington and The Lodge Gallery.

To focus only on the superficial elements of erotic fetishism and unintentional links to 19th century colonialism in Wellington’s paintings would be the equivalent of missing the forest for the trees. I believe the actual key lies in Wellington’s simple vanitas, For Your Dreams (2013). In this oil painting, two realistically represented skulls lie on an abandoned beach, interrupted only by an empty canoe. An autumnal forest stands on a distant shore. The parallel thematic concept of the vanitas reveals itself in the fragility of civilization represented in the crumbling Neo-Classical stone ruins and burning military bunkers in such paintings as Hero (2016) and Diana Bathing (with Guards) (2013). Even modern day structures like the water tower in Come Nearer the Fire (2008) are not omitted from Wellington’s dystopian universe. In these scenarios, his figures become contemporary avatars for Greek goddesses of old and heroic Arthurian knights. The timely allusion to fallen empires and icons raised to god-like stature, like the Takashi Murakami Mr. DOB plushy sitting aflame atop the Great Wall of China in You and Me (2009/2016), though not expressly made to order, is not lost on the perspicacious viewer.

Hidden in plain sight, Wellington employs allegorical symbols painted both from life and imagination. In Bathing Diana (with Guards), moon slivers, representing the goddess Diana, are emblazoned on the white caps of the women soldiers who serve as members of her retinue, marching in time on the shore, guarding her ritual ablutions. The moon appears again in a distant temple where an everlasting flame is lit in her honor. In Hero, a red-sheathed sword, adorned with a leather hilt, serves as ballast for a turbaned man seated on a stone pillar as he gazes onto a burning bunker. It shows up again in Dangerous (2011) on the lap of a young woman seated on a checkered floor, who glances coyly sideways at the words “And like any artist without an art form, She became dangerous,” a quote borrowed from Toni Morrison’s novel Sula, 1973, written in looping script in the upper right hand corner of the painting.

Whatever your conclusions may be regarding Wellington’s portrayal of the female form and ethnicities other than his own, I recommend putting down your sword and taking up the mantle of peace to explore the rich narrative presented in this exhibition. Who knows? You might even enjoy it.

(January 25 - March 5, 2017)

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