There's plenty of different conclusions one could draw when trying to absorb artist Eric Wesley's takeover of an abandoned Taco Bell in Cahokia, Illinois. It's a commentary on America's fast-food culture; it's using high-art in a spicy attempt to contrast the bland Midwest; it's simply a gimmick, right? Whatever answer you dream up, it's not the one the artist has in mind. "That's what I'm attracted to: absurdity," Wesley tells Creators. "I'm a formalist artist."
The Bell scratches Wesley's longtime itch to convert an odd Midwestern locale into an art space. Born in Los Angeles, represented by Bortolami Gallery in New York, and known in Europe, Wesley has always viewed the Midwest as a challenging environment. "The middle of America has always been not-so-comforting to art," he says. "I wanted to change that."
Wesley tells a story about how he first found the abandoned fast food restaurant he now calls The Bell. He and his girlfriend, fellow artist Alika Cooper, drove past it a few times while passing through Cahokia, a languishing Midwestern suburb just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. The old Taco Bell's Spanish-Colonial style structure and vacant strip-mall surroundings were enough to make him get out of the car to examine the building.
"I touched the brick and I walked through it," he remembers. "I thought about the HVAC and the air conditioning and the plumbing and all this stuff, and I think it's about my same age. I was born in '73 and this building was built about then."
Already, Wesley was diving into the formalist attributes the space offered.
Now in the project's eighth month, The Bell is in its fourth phase of development. Wesley launched Phase One of his Taco Bell takeover in July 2016, with a series of circular paintings meant to evoke the cross sections of burritos. Phases Two and Three, in the fall, included a maize maze, sculptures built from HVAC tubing—simulating respiratory airflow and the circulation of visitors through the gallery—a crow, and glass sculptures based on the trapezoidal windows of a Pizza Hut across the street. Phase Four introduces additional planes of colored, mirrored glass, corresponding to the shapes of the windows in The Bell and the Pizza Hut, while bronze cast scale models of the restaurants hang suspended above glass tables, threatening to fracture the relationship between interior and exterior. Wesley will continue to iterate in the space until the project's conclusion in April 2017, working towards converting the abandoned Taco Bell into the living, breathing space he envisioned when first touching its brick walls.
One thing Wesley is sure of is that he wants The Bell to feel like a holistic, full-circle project. "I've always thought about this 'total work of art' thing," Wesley says. "What it means is including everything—people's behavior, objects, sounds, music, smells, food—everything."
That's part of the goal behind his installation of a bell inside the restaurant's original, empty, Alamo-esque bell tower. It's rigged with a loud speaker to project deep, ringing peals that audibly reach the neighboring Pizza Hut, the same one he's mimicked inside The Bell. But though Wesley's multisensory takeover and celebration of a defunct restaurant is an homage to experimentation with found elements, it's also representative of Wesley's total body of work, making his yearlong takeover less about an oasis of high art in an unlikely American locale and more about the artist himself.