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.
For example, he describes his new installation, "divining"--in a concurrent one-man show ("Pseudesthesia & Synechdoche") at Griffin Fine Art in Costa Mesa--as "a sensual experience that (doesn't) have any rules."
Light-filled translucent objects shaped like oversized children's blocks and attached to ropes are scattered on the floor or slung over the rafters. A paddle-shaped object on wheels is perforated with small holes resembling a star constellation and fitted with ocular devices.
Divining, Wheeler said, "is an almost magical activity which has to do with something very practical: finding water. In this case, it's the other way around. You try these weird practical methods to find sense in something that's (actually) about light and color and shadow and all that.
"We (invent) constellations (as a guide) in navigation and astrological divination. But in the end, it's all a sensual experience."
Wheeler says much of his work has to do with "seeing something and feeling attracted to it. . . . There's that kind of tension. That's the sexual thing. It's a relationship all collectors feel--that desire to have." (Collecting is a subject Wheeler knows about firsthand in his day job as a registrar, cataloguing and noting the condition of works in the Douglas Cramer Foundation, a major Los Angeles collection owned by the TV producer.)
"Oftentimes I'll make something that's very sensually attractive and (juxtapose it with) something that's not attractive. Because then you have both notions, and you don't know what to do."
Many of Wheeler's pieces involve arcs of motion or implied orbits. Some might read these fixed paths as symbolic of confinement or entrapment, but Wheeler does not.
"We don't say the moon is trapped in an orbit; it is involved in an orbit," he said. "The many arcs and containers and forms that surround or attract or pull away in my work are about the fact that we are . . . involved in relationships. You cannot disconnect us from these (personal involvements)."
In a statement Wheeler wrote last year for the catalogue of a group show at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he remarked that his actions "are fueled by optimism and, by extension, hope. . . . I believe (objects) can carry meaning, however obliquely. . . . But sculpture is a mostly mute medium. It works best when it acts upon the body in a way that supersedes the intellect."
That's why Wheeler's installations involve physical activities (walking, climbing, touching) on the part of the viewer, and much of his sculpture also has moving parts meant to be moved or elements inviting smell or touch. As he says, "The work is for people willing to experience."
* "You Are Here," through Sunday at the Main Art Gallery, Cal State Fullerton, State College Avenue at Nutwood Avenue, Fullerton. Hours: Noon-4 p.m. today and Thursday; 3-7 p.m. Wednesday; 2-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $3 suggested donation. (714) 773-3262. "Pseudesthesia & Synechdoche," through April 9 at Griffin Fine Art, 1640 Pomona Ave., Costa Mesa. Hours: 6-10 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday; and by appointment. (714) 646-5665.