Some three months ago, Los Angeles artist
signed a lease on a defunct Taco Bell in Cahokia, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
Wesley had been driving back and forth between St. Louis and L.A. with his girlfriend, fellow artist Alika Cooper. After passing by the shell of a fast-food restaurant on a drive from St. Louis to a Walmart in the suburbs, he called the leasing agent, and eventually became its temporary guardian. With the support of his gallery, Bortolami
, Wesley spent months overhauling the space and making art in it. Now, it has become a project space-cum-work of art called The Bell
“Seven years ago or so I was looking for land here,” Wesley recalls over the phone from Cahokia. The artist’s peers and mentors were focused at the time on achieving success in the art world’s heartland, Europe. Wesley, on the other hand, set his sights on middle America, drawn to an area that was untouched and untapped by contemporary art.
“As soon as I discovered this place, I formed a kinship with it,” he says of Cahokia. “I grew up in L.A., in the San Fernando Valley, and Cahokia, Illinois, is quite a bit like it. That had me coming back. It’s what I call the true suburban lifestyle.” Rather than the framing of suburbia in the American consciousness as a place of safety with access to nature, in Cahokia Wesley saw a suburbia “of the Pet Shop Boys’ definition,” he says, nodding to the band’s 1986 hit. The abandoned Taco Bell aligned well with this seedy, decayed version of suburban life. That is, until Wesley began to transform it.
Wesley’s Taco Bell is built in the chain’s typical mission style, with a pitched roof, round arches, and an alcove where a bell once hung. But the structure had sat dormant for years, leaving it in a state of ruin. To create The Bell, Wesley had to bring everything up to code, installing new water and electrical conduits among myriad other renovations. The results are nothing short of transformative. Where customers once chomped on Chalupa Supremes in swivel chairs and vinyl-padded booths now sits a light-filled gallery space with white walls and wood floors.