In an art world that embraced an eccentric woman creating interesting works of art on the street and selling them cheaply to passersby, I always wondered why Chicago gave a cold shoulder to Wesley Willis. Here’s an artist whose mastery of the ballpoint and felt tip pens is peerless. His detailed drawings on full sheets of Crescent Board of his city were incredibly detailed and beautiful. Almost all of it seemed to come straight out of his head as if he were channelling a higher power. Was it because he frightened some people? He was huge. When he shook your hand, you thought he could easily crush it in his oversized mitt. Could it have been his outbursts? One of them scared a fellow passenger on a bus so much that he was compelled to slash Wesley’s face with a knife, leaving him with a nasty scar.
Bump my head! Bump my head! AAAAAHHHHHH!!!!
Or, perhaps it was that the underground music scene discovered him, giving him a chance to release his energetic and rambling poetry into the world and walk away from the visual art world (more or less). Hell, he made it to the Howard Stern show.
In any case, I always thought (and still do) feel that Wesley Willis is one of Chicago’s most important artists. With his 180 degree perspective drawings, he captured parts of the city that no longer exist — the Robert Taylor Homes, green limousines — in a way that keeps them alive. His line work demonstrated skill and confidence in a vision that did not need explaining. He had an extraordinary eye for detail, down to capturing the correct attributes of the different series of CTA busses. No bullshit artist statements needed here. He was the real deal and left behind a legacy that I hope one day will get its due.
Buy my drawings. Twenty dollars. Two for forty.
So I was excited to find out about his retrospective at Project Onward. It was very moving to see the work properly displayed in a gallery setting. The work is as lively and colorful today as it was 15 years ago. It was also heartwarming to see that he had so many fans and supporters. It is definitely worth going back for a second look.
As a bonus, we get to see the debut of his brother, Ricky Willis’ three dimensional work. His signs, water towers, buildings and busses are a perfect compliment to Wesley’s drawings. The talent definitely runs in the family and I’m glad Ricky can carry on the tradition.
Well, until Wesley Willis gets the recognition he deserves, at least they renamed Sears Tower after him.
Wesley Willis, Ricky Willis: Joy Bus Ride, on display now through November 2, 2013. Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St., 4th Floor.