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ART : Daniel Wheeler: From Basement Blasts to 'Here'

March 07, 1995|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Daniel Wheeler was growing up, he did the usual kid things, butwith an exploratory bent that hints at the conceptual artist he is today--author of the contemplative yet physically involving installation "You Are Here" at Cal State Fullerton (through March 12).

Sequestered in his dad's basement workshop, Wheeler would combine three or four model kits to make mutant contraptions, some rigged with fireworks for instant self-destruction. Hovering over his Hot Wheels track with an Instamatic, he shot what he now recalls as "abstract images of these orange lines shooting through space."

In the gently filtered midday light of his spacious studio, tucked into a cul-de-sac in an industrial area of Glendale, the boyish 34-year-old artist talked recently about the evolution of the work he has been showing for the past few years at Newspace gallery in Los Angeles and in group exhibitions in Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland and Tokyo.

Carefully prefacing his remarks with a career-conscious concern that his words not be taken out of context, Wheeler said he tends to approach art-making in a roundabout fashion: "I kind of back into something, and then I have to respond to where I got myself."

A photography buff, he had little experience in other forms of art when he entered Brown University in 1980. Painting, in particular, struck him as an alien activity.

"I always felt I was decorating a surface. I never saw the surface as a void that needed to be filled. I didn't understand it at the time, but I saw the canvas as an object ."

A summer course in the south of France taught him to paint in the structurally abstracted style of 19th-Century master Paul Cezanne. Treating negative space as a solid entity proved very enjoyable, he said, as did a class in stone carving.

"I went into a quarry one day, and they said, 'OK, here's a piece of limestone, and we want you to peel away the layers until you get an egg.' I picked up the chisels and hammer and started doing it. And I realized, my God, this is so natural to the way I think. . . . I read things as images. . . . I see a thing, and I'm as interested by its form or its associations as by its actuality."

Despite his visceral enjoyment of the hand-carving process, Wheeler realized it wasn't going to be his metier.

"It became just a technique to go somewhere, like welding," he said. "I realized you could get really wishy-washy if you spent all your time reacting to the material."

Soon afterward, he started combining handmade elements with old found objects--and hazarding another "wishy-washy" pitfall, the sentimental trap of nostalgia.

But Wheeler doesn't see old things as nostalgic.

"Decay to me is kind of beautiful in a conceptual way. . . . I feel awe-struck about the enormity of loss and decay, the movement toward chaos and entropy."

On the other hand, he exploits the seductive aspect of nostalgia. In his view, an object with a history--like an old shovel--has many potential associations for viewers. Yet his modifications to the object--the "warts or tumors" he grafts onto it--are intended to evoke nonexistent usages, pushing the associational process into another realm.

"The more successful a piece is, (the more) it forces viewers to dump their own stories and desires into the piece," Wheeler said. "I do very much listen to the way people react to things because . . . it is, after all, an exercise in communication. I don't make my work based on people's reactions, but I'm very interested in what they are."

Howard Fox, curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, praises Wheeler's art for its metaphysical quality.

"He sets his aims at overarching issues that deal with human existence," Fox said. "How do we perceive ourselves in relation to one another? Where does the body stop and the rest of the world begin? It's really about imagination and the soul . . . upholding the dignity of human life even in the uncertain way it navigates the world minute by minute."

*

Fortunate to have discovered such a rich subject for his work in college, Wheeler unself-consciously illustrates his current ideas by mentioning a piece he made 15 years ago. "Untitled (Wing)" was made to look like a weathered, improbably small airplane wing resting on the floor, cordoned off by a low stanchion. (Wheeler submerged the piece in the ocean for six months to create a barnacled patina.)

"The question is not, 'What is it?' " Wheeler said. "The question is, 'Why is it that size? What was it made for? Why was it made, and who made it?' "

He measures an imaginary wing against his shoulders.

"A 10-foot wing is about the right span for a human body," he suggested.

For the most part, Wheeler's art is engaged with the nature of experience, the way the body moves through space and the brain puzzles out the connections between what is seen and felt and what is known.

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