wesley duke lee
Wesley Duke Lee in his studio/house, located on Avenida João Dias, and now part of it reassembled and present in his institute, in Jardins, both in SP. Photo: Flávio Pinto Freire

I don't write a linear text to talk about Wesley Duke Lee, a multifaceted artist, full of transterritorial narratives, inventor of fragmented multiple identities, which have always provoked controversy. The aristocratic style, already present in his surname, followed him until his death in 2010. The son of a conservative American father, in 1951 he turned the tables, decided to be an artist, attended drawing classes at MASP and, the following year, entered the Parsons School of Design, in New York.

Painting, xeroxing, collage, sculpture, engraving, artist's book, computer graphics, almost nothing escaped the creativity of Wesley, a pioneer of pop language in Brazil. In 1963 he adhered to magical realism and taught artists such as Carlos Fajardo, Frederico Nasser, José Resende and Luiz Paulo Baravelli, with whom he worked intensively for two years. A few years later, his work leaves the plane and takes on three-dimensional space. works like The Trapezoid or A Confusion (1966) and the helicopter (1967) are already articulated as environments.

As a rescue of the production of an essential artist, the contribution of the Wesley Duke Lee Art Institute is undeniable, created in 2015 by gallery owner Ricardo Camargo with the artist's niece, Patrícia Lee, in a space attached to Ricardo's gallery, in Jardim Paulistano. A visit to the Institute puts the public in touch with the artist's daily life, full of unique pieces, such as the famous bar where he used to eat, as well as personal objects, such as brushes, books, records, as well as paintings, engravings, drawings and many Photos. The central question is to understand a production that disturbs, transgresses, does not allow itself to be domesticated, and which is now accessible, on a reduced scale, almost a replica of the charming house/atelier on Av. João Dias, a space of seductive originality and creativity.

With access to the public, the Wesley Duke Lee Art Institute was created, in Camargo's conception, as a space for those who want to have contact with magical realism, through the library, organization of objects on the walls and the database with 6.000 documents . One of the goals of the Wesley Duke Lee Art Institute is to produce a catalog raisonné, for the preservation and authenticity of his work. Wesley's production is timeless and transits between the origin of man, sexuality, death, eroticism and has a density as strong as his cosmopolitanism lived between Brazil, the United States, Europe and Japan.

Now, during Art Basel in Miami, a specialized audience, coming from the four corners of the planet, can have contact with some of the works and furniture from Wesley's studio. The show, organized by Ricardo Camargo and Patrícia Lee, has the effective participation of the São Paulo gallery Almeida & Dale. Camargo is committed to the show, which occupies a 36-square-meter stand in the S3 sector of the Fair, where the exhibitor can only show one artist. “We chose Wesley and we are going to show nine works in addition to his main easel, a support piece of furniture from the studio, the mask from when he won the prize at the 8th Japan Biennale, in 1969, photos, among other items”.

The choice of works from various phases provides an overview of Wesley's production, such as the Master Khyrurgos Helmet 1962, the oldest among the works in this show, which marks the birth of two strong trends in his work: mythological experimentalism and collage. Another timely work is Zone: I Ching, 1964, oil and collage on canvas, which is part of the series i Ching, composed of six works. With her, the artist was in the Wesley Duke Lee Exhibition, at the Tokyo Gallery, in 1965, a great moment in his career, when he lived in Japan for eight months, and in The Emergent Decade: Latin American Painters and Paintings in the 1960's, at the Guggenheim, New York, in 1966.

duke lee leagues
Wesley Duke Lee, 'Leagues', 1972.

Like many artists, Wesley experimented with all sorts of things; one of them resulted in the work The Zone: Arino Boa Viagem, 1969, colored pencils and collage, which is of special importance in his career. The work was carried out in 1969, in Los Angeles, during a lysergic “trip” with two friends. Camargo comments that “although the lines are delicate, they carry a strong and defined pictorial identity”. Over six decades Wesley goes through several “trials” and choices. When he arrives at LSD, via experimentation with new processes, he marks a new stage in his production. Like most artists of the 60's, he interested in exploring artistic experiences with substance.

Wesley always had a passion for mythologies and reading Greek mythology for him was like reading life. At work O/Clean: Anima 1971 (environmental art) he aggregates varied objects such as papier-mâché, metal, fabrics, wood, plastic, iron, straw, earth, stone and bone. Camargo comments that Wesley starts the project Olympus, “when he made 15 paintings and this single installation, in which he portrayed masks in the particular universe linked to the settings of Greek Mythology”. The difference is that this work spans Wesley's entire life until his death in 2010. It becomes a work in progress eternal, in which, from time to time, he incorporates new elements, such as a personal pet.

One of the works that draws attention in the set is The initiation of the myth of Narcissus, 1981, colored pencils, gouache, India ink, stamp, collage, adhesive tape without cardboard and cardboard. In it, Wesley's inspiration is the actress Sônia Braga, of whom he was an admirer. It is he himself who comments on this work. “In legend, Narcissus was punished for admiring his own image in the lake. I take the myth further: he was looking at the bottom of the lake… that I captured from this moment of Sonia”. Sensuality and eroticism are the essential binomial in Wesley's work. With Tantratem, 1999, spray paint, oil, shoelace and collage without card, it refers to the sexual energy of Tantra, highlighting what has always been so important in his poetics: the duplicity of his themes, the real and the magical, the dialogue between the world present and the world of dreams. With Portrait of Luzia or about Auntie 1969 (environmental art) liquitex without canvas and living plant with a vase, Wesley integrates objects and plants into the paintings in an attempt to deepen the approximation of different worlds, creating a garden over the garden of his memory.

Camargo talks enthusiastically about the revival of Wesley's production. “Last year, the work  Trapeze or a Confession”, made for the 1966 Venice Biennale, was part of the collective The Word Goes Pop, at the Tate Modern Gallery. Soffia Gotti, who collaborated on the show, says that she discovered Wesley's work when she first visited São Paulo, during the research process for The World Goes Pop”, when he got to know the Roger Wright collection, which is now at the Pinacoteca do Estado. “There I got to see for the first time the incredible installation, one of the few that Wesley produced, called Trapeze or a confession. And it was interesting because we read the title the wrong way.” They didn't read confession, but confusion. “Which is actually the key element in this whole discussion because there's a lot of confusion about Wesley's work. Furthermore, this particular installation was cathartic in my understanding of its practice more generally, because it is an immersive cube in bars, suspended in panels, two of which are wooden and two are acrylic.”, comments Soffia.

Camargo talks about the strong presence of Wesley in this show and says he is satisfied with the significant set that he exhibits at Miami Art Basel. Faced with a market that is not always knowledgeable about the history of art, in which an artist is sometimes considered important for the amount his work reaches, it is very opportune to focus on the forgotten production of Wesley Duke Lee. A special paulistano in the history of Brazilian art, an aristocrat among us.

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