Joel Mesler - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 2, 2023 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  • “The paintings come out of the memories of nights my parents would go out for the evening. Their parting words to me, ‘Honey, you deserve great things’ and ‘The world is yours,’ and the animals in my wallpaper would meet with the furs of my mother’s jackets, the colours of their clothes and the smells of their perfume and cologne.”
    —Joel Mesler

    Bright, bold, and unapologetically playful, Californian artist Joel Mesler’s canvases are instantly recognisable in their juxtaposition of familiar, resonant phrases against highly stylised backgrounds. Universal in its appeal, Untitled (Play the Hits) has a sharp, graphic quality that nods to Mesler’s earlier printmaking practice on a technical level, while its wry humour draws on more personal autobiographic elements gleaned from the artist’s childhood. Coming to painting later in life after a mercurial career that saw him working as a landlord and art dealer amongst other ventures, Mesler creates nuanced, vibrant canvases which explore the relationship between word and image, combining the personal and the universal as family history dovetails with more collective experiences.


    Created by applying paint directly onto the canvas’s raw linen in a series of carefully layered brushstrokes, Mesler’s energetic colours and precise sense of pictorial precision make his work highly accessible, drawing frequent comparison to the direct style and simplicity of children’s picture books as well as the exotic fauna of Henri Rousseau’s stylised scenes. As in Rousseau’s canvases, the long, sculptural fronds of palms and banana leaves are a signature element that recurs throughout Mesler’s oeuvre, conjuring the imaginative jungles of our childhood games and stories which the artist then populates with seemingly unrelated motifs, here including a lone leopard, sauntering over scorching sand; a glittering disco ball suspended, impossibly, above his head; and a host of strange, brightly coloured lights dance in the skies overhead.


    Henri Rousseau, Combat de tigre et de buffle, 1908, Cleveland Museum of Art. Image: Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Hanna Fund 1949.186

    Although charmingly familiar at first glance, the closer we gaze into the depths of Mesler’s imaginary jungle scene, other more unsettling elements begin to emerge. Avian forms appear to melt, as if evaporating in the sweltering heat rising from the red-hot ground, where licking flames dance at the edges of shimmering pools of cool water, watched over by a sinister pair of large, red eyes. Through these careful juxtapositions and the artist’s characteristically direct style, Mesler harnesses a powerful dramatic tension in Untitled (Play the Hits) as the disparate pictorial elements spar against each other, a more emotional undercurrent that can be read in relation to certain autobiographical details submerged in the visually rich composition.

    “I like the fact that there are many layers to my work. I enjoy knowing that there may be several interpretations of the works…many layers of truth and reality.”
    —Joel Mesler

    The luscious, exotic fauna that features so prominently in Mesler’s work is in fact directly drawn from his childhood memories – a ‘poisoned madeleine’, that returned Mesler to the iconic wallpaper of the Beverly Hills hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles where the artist spent these turbulent years.i Marked by addiction and trauma, Mesler’s affluent childhood was not always happy, his father prone to violent outbursts and reckless behaviours as his parent’s protracted divorce became increasingly rancorous. If the dense, jungle foliage recalls these tense moments in the Beverly Hills Hotel with his father, we might also read in the delicate webbed patterns of the sections of water in Untitled (Play the Hits), a reference both to the ubiquity of swimming pools in Los Angeles and, more precisely, to the pool parties that his mother used to host for her friends when he was younger. As is so often the case – and certainly appears to have been so for the artist – life is not always what it seems, the smooth, attractive surface that we present to the world often hiding more difficult realities beneath. It is this tension that best describes Mesler’s compositions, which the viewer is encouraged to approach on their own terms, finding a whimsical retelling of some childhood fantasy, or the darker “underbelly of something else.”ii


    Words and Pictures


    Emblazoned across the centre of the present work and rendered in pink, candy-striped bubble letters, the titular phrase ‘Play the Hits’ reappears throughout Mesler’s work and has a deadpan, somewhat dualistic nature to it, operating at once as a celebration and a criticism. In its employment of typographic elements, Untitled (Play the Hits) connects itself to a rich tradition of artists who examined the possibilities of juxtaposing text and image. In the early decades of the 20th century, Surrealist master Magritte explored the unexpected concepts that arose from the witty juxtaposition of words and pictures, creating a series of enigmatic paintings that challenged pictorial convention. While his infamous La trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) from 1929 wittily highlights the inherent slipperiness of the relationship of the object to both language and the image, works such as L'usage de la parole speak more directly to ways language operates by substituting a concept with a word.


    Left: René Magritte, L'usage de la parole (The Uses of Speech), 1927-29, Private Collection. Image: © NPL - DeA Picture Library / G. Nimatallah / Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023
    Right: Ed Ruscha, Pay Nothing Until April, 2003, Tate Collection, London. Image: © Tate, Artwork: © Ed Ruscha

    Later, visionaries such as Ed Ruscha and Christopher Wool built on this theoretical approach by removing any objective link, allowing sometimes provocative sometimes subtle words to become free-standing as they were inscribed directly onto the primed canvas. Departing from the legacy established by these artists however, the bond between word and image in Mesler’s paintings is more autobiographical than conceptual. Words and phrases are reeled in from moments in his childhood - utterings from his parents as they were putting him to bed which were absorbed into the jungle wallpaper of his bedroom to create vivid dreamscapes in his childhood imagination. Contrasting to the more reassuring sentiments of other works such as ‘YOU DESERVE GREAT THINGS’ and ‘THE WORLD IS YOURS’, ‘PLAY THE HITS’ is more cryptic. On a personal level, perhaps it reflects his mother telling his father to cue the music as Mesler’s mind drifts into dream, echoes from the grown-up world surreptitiously find their way into the guileless subconscious of the child, and since it is so vague, we are each invited to conjure up our own definition.


    Collector’s Digest

    • Born in Los Angeles in 1974, Joel Mesler started concentrating directly on his own art practice in 2015 after having already developed a career as an art dealer.

    • In recent years, Mesler has exhibited internationally, including his 2022 solo exhibition with LGDR, Hong Kong.

    • His most recent exhibition, Joel Mesler: The Rabbis is currently on view at Cheim & Read in New York and his first institutional show opens on February 19 2023 at the Long Museum in Shanghai.


    i Boris Kachka, ‘How an Art Dealer Became an Up-and-Coming Painter’, New York Times Style Magazine, 19 June 2018, online.

    ii Joel Mesler, quoted in ‘Joel Mesler: What Lies Beneath the Eye Candy’, Lux Magazine, 2022, online

    • Provenance

      Rental Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner


Untitled (Play the Hits)

signed and dated ‘Joel Mesler 2021’ on the overlap
pigment on linen
213.4 x 165.1 cm (84 x 65 in.)
Painted in 2021.

Full Cataloguing

£150,000 - 200,000 

Sold for £533,400

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 2 March 2023