The Art of Wesley Willis

Dan Ryan Expressway by Wesley Willis

Wesley Willis is probably better known for his music than his art, which was executed with markers and ballpoint pens and focused almost exclusively on urban landscapes, primarily his hometown of Chicago.

Dan Ryan Expressway by Wesley Willis

Dan Ryan Expressway by Wesley Willis

Dan Ryan Expressway by Wesley Willis

Pictured here are four of Willis’ drawings of Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway, one of his favorite subjects. His cityscapes tend to include tall buildings, trucks, buses, and freeways, although I’ve seen one drawing of a single-family home.

As far as I know, Willis’ legitimacy as an outsider artist, bolstered by the support of Juxtapoz magazine, among others, has not been questioned. But, the legitimacy of his musical output and his fans’ sincerity have been criticized. I can’t speak for anyone else but, having seen him live twice, I simply think that people respond to charisma no matter what the source, maybe more so if the source is surprising, as in the form of a larger-than-life, schizophrenic, formerly homeless man with a keyboard. The sheer audacity of his relentlessly obscene, repetitive lyrics was mesmerizing. His physical presence was palpable during a performance and, although he recorded many albums, and although they’re fun to listen to, they inevitably lack the brute force of his concerts.

In both his lyrical and visual output, Willis stuck to a few favorite subjects. That repetition, along with the taut economy of his expression, are two reasons why I think his work has had such sustained impact. To see more of his art, check out Art of Wesley Willis and Wesley Willis Art. You can also find snippets of his songs online.

Bedpan Memorial to Wesley Willis

At the outsider art fair in downtown Cincinnati a couple of years ago, I met a Dayton-based artist/school bus driver who makes kitschy bedpan memorials to various famous figures. I just had to buy this one, whose puff-paint inscription reads:

Scoured from the mean streets of Chicago, IL Wesley Willis was a 6’5″, 350 lb. schizophrenic who became a punk rock legend. With only a Casio in tow, Willis penned such classics as “My Mamma Smokes Crack Rocks,” and “Rock and Roll McDonalds.” R.I.P. Wesley Willis.

Today would have been Willis’ 45th birthday.

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8 thoughts on “The Art of Wesley Willis

  1. Having never seen him live, or seeing his artwork I was always a little turned off by Wesley’s stardom. It always seemed a little too exploitive and voyeuristic to his condition. But seeing his art and your description of his performances sheds some new light on the matter.

    The drawings are an especially good insight on how Wesley and so many others were/are able to present to the world how ubiquitous environments and experiences contain different meanings for different people and seeing how someone else sees is what makes visual art enjoyable, for me.

    Nice post.

  2. You may be right about exploitation; there are rumors of his money having been mishandled, and I don’t really know what other people took from his performances. For me, though, it was like witnessing an exorcism. I think art and music were more than just creative outlets for Willis, or a way to make money. I think they helped him battle his demons and gave him a structure for understanding his place in the world. I don’t know much about schizophrenia, but I think that one episodically sort of breaks with reality, and so these forms of expression were a kind of coping mechanism for him, helping to bridge the chasm. With that understanding, I actually found his performances very moving.

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