Friday, June 4, 2010

Always Thinking: An Interview with Bill Wheelock

Bill Wheelock is a Los Angeles based artist whose work I could only describe as conceptual-spatial as he is simultaneously and equally sensitive to the ideas behind his projects and how they relate to the space around them as well as the space they occupy. He received his MA in Theory and Criticism from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA after a BFA in Sculpture from the Rhode Island School Of Design in Providence, RI. The extent of his involvement in the arts, including his publications, collectors and exhibitions are too numerous to recount here. Bill and his wife Anne Hars are the founders and stewards of The Thinkery.

Drew:
I finally looked at your website today and was really impressed by all of your work. I caught glimpses of it at your place on my last trip to Los Angeles, but it was nice to see it all together on your site. I do not play up the term 'peripheral' but there is something in it that I associate with you. Perhaps it's that I have indirectly known of you for so many years and I have sat in spaces that you have painted and influenced. The first place was our mutual friends' house in New York City. You and Anne painted the walls there. Those subtle but bold designs, The Thinkery mural and I would say all of your other work show a real mastery in spatial relationships. Can you talk about having that kind of way of thinking of things? It's different than being simply a visual thinker and very different than a literary mind, though you are very visual and a good writer as well.

Bill:
Thanks for the compliment! I have to defer a little credit though, the painting in New York was all Anne and the painter Leeza Dorian; and, the mural at the Thinkery was conceived by a Buddhist monk at the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Korea Town and painted by Anne and some of our neighbors.

In high school I took a Differential Aptitude Test, and scored in the 98th percentile in “spatial relations” and a 32 in “clerical speed and accuracy”. They said I would never be a hockey goalie. I tend to imagine things in something like wireframe or bullet-time 3D. Conceiving projects in time-based media is a challenge for me: moving images are like a foreign language. With writing and sculpture I enjoy the na├»ve search for true philosophical declarations, like monuments one can count on to be somewhat eternal, but such objects are always frustrated by the process of time. I used to feel paralyzed to write for fear that any declarations I might write down may become obsolete almost as soon as they are formed. For this reason, I think most people are terrified to write poetry, or describe their ephemeral feelings in any concrete way. Photography may have helped me resolve this somewhat. You aren’t representing the essence of the way you think things are, you are representing the way things might have been, from a particular perspective, during a particular one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth of a second. There are enough variables to avoid reification or the trouble associated with graven images, or any Grand Declaration of the Essence of Truth.

Drew:
Comparing your work to Anne's, there seems to be a real connection, and I do not mean a similarity...you both are very spatial but also venture into a fuzzy no-man's land. Anne does it in her blurry photographs and you take it a step further and make (in your words) "three-dimensional sculpture with ambiguous boundaries, inspired by the blur of out-of-focus photographs."

I love these kinds of conceptual leaps. Very few people are actually capable of them because it means inverting everything you understand about something. I really like your Blurry Bowl and Red Blurry Vase. From the photographs, they look like spinning tethered balls on an acrylic dowel. How did you come to these works?

Bill:
Those are ping-pong balls glued to a structure of clear acrylic rods. They spin on an axis mounted to a ceiling fan motor, concealed in the pedestal. I was reading a lot of French theory at the time, and they were talking about the effects of entropy and duration on ideas. Deconstruction and postmodern thought undermined, or at least aerated the authoritarian one-point perspective that had been entrenched probably since the fifteenth century (right image: Perspective study of a vase by Paolo Uccello [Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto dei Disegni]). This view holds that there is one best way to see things, and that the findings will always be true for all people at all times. If you put your eyeball in the same place as the artist (and close your other eye), you will see exactly what they saw. This is fabulously useful for technical rendering, but a little dehumanizing in matters of expression. What if we slowed down time, and could see all the little electrons we are told are spinning around? We know all objects are made of particles, and yet can’t see them, so I attempted to make some objects with bad boundaries; icons that exist more as tendencies than certainties; blurry things.

Drew:
Your sculptures are very cerebral, but your drawings are much more emotional even though you describe them scientifically as a "re-experience of ambient conditions." All of them are quite beautiful especially what happens in the Star series. All The Ink In A Bic Pen (at bottom of post) might as well be All The Ink In The Universe. And, 24 Chairs pulsates between being quite sad and lonely to cute and optimistic. Drawing for me is the most sensitive medium and I need special conditions to approach it. What is it for you and what do you get from it?

Bill:
Drawing is a meditative practice for me. It is a very primary way to concentrate. I think I started to doodle from an urge to perform the action of writing, but couldn’t think of anything particular to say in words. I just dragged the pen across paper from left to right until the page was filled up, wanting to make some record of my state of mind, but not one that would mean anything more than just what it was: the consequence of two objects in contact over time, guided by my shaking hand.

24 Chairs is one of my favorite drawings. I actually photographed one chair in 24 different positions from the perspective of a fixed point, traced them and then randomly scrambled their locations, redrawing and rescaling them as if they were all together at once. Each chair is drawn in proper perspective; but not in relation to each other. Although they are all together, each is seen from an individual different point of view.

Drew:
I had heard about The Creamery, your house and studio in Vermont. From the pictures on your website, it looks like you had quite the workshop. Does moving on to The Thinkery in Los Angeles reflect a shift towards more conceptual work or is there another reason behind that name?

Bill:
Yes and no. My work has always been conceptual in that I am playing with ideas, more than technically crafting materials, but I don’t think you can have one without the other. I had a huge studio in an old creamery at my disposal because space is cheap in Vermont, (until you have to heat it), but I usually tended to make small and fragile things even there. I got my MA in Theory here in Los Angeles, and since then, our home has become The Thinkery; a think-tank of art projects. The name is from an amazingly modern Aristophanes farce, The Clouds from 423 BC. In it Socrates and other Athenian philosophers are ridiculed as they run a school of rhetoric called The Thinkery producing mostly articulate lay-abouts.

Drew:
I have one of three impressions when I see work. One is when I see something done poorly and the reaction is to simply roll up my sleeves and do it better. Sometimes it is not about the result but the process. That's where my show Under The Hood at The Thinkery came from...which was a reaction to seeing how some photographers conduct themselves and what their goals are. Another reaction is unapproachable awe. This happens with people who go beyond what I could ever imagine. These artists are usually managing teams of people and are working at a scale I would never attempt. I refer to him too much, but Richard Serra comes to mind. The third and final reaction is a glowing feeling that someone has done something I would like to have done, but it is accomplished so well that there is no urge to recreate it. This is where a lot of your work sits with me...I am especially thinking about your brilliant Non-Specific Sites such as Above Ground Hole, Time Machine: To The Immediate Future, Attractive Nuisance and The Above Line Extends Almost All The Way Around The World. The latter is the one I picked up on your desk...and I remember discussing Walter De Maria with you...but I do not remember asking you if this was a nod to him or more about conceptualizing beyond him.

Bill:
I remember you telling me what Anne Hamilton said: if you get a good idea, make it, or else, usually within the month, you will find someone else already has. I believe that intellectual property is theft. We cannot really own ideas. I love it when people see things I have done and say that they are sure they have seen it done before but can’t say where. There are just some ideas that have to be done when the time comes. I hold affinity for De Maria and other monument-makers of the “expanded field” of sculpture. The Vertical Earth Kilometer (1977), located in the Friedrichsplatz Park in Kassel, Germany, (a one-kilometer-long solid brass round rod, two inches in diameter, its full length inserted into the ground with its top reaching flush to the surface of the earth) falls into that second category of awe at the scale and access to materials and resources required. I find much more freedom in work that anyone could have done if they had the idea using materials that are easily accessible, or readymade, or made to order. For this reason, I feel more affinity to Iain Baxter and N. E. Thing Co., who, for instance, set up signs designating a quarter of a mile of landscape as art.

Drew:
I have only covered some of your work. Your site also has your Fire Drawings (as pictured at the top of this interview and below), Installations (pictured with my introductory question) and Distributions. What work are you most proud of and what are you working on now?

Bill:
Gosh. I really like all of my work or I probably wouldn’t show it to anyone. I am particularly proud of a book I self-published: The Wrong Idea; Maritzio Cattelan in the Economy of Attention. It is about the art world within the art world that was briefly epitomized by the Wrong Gallery, a show space smaller than a closet in a doorway in Chelsea NY (now moved to the Tate, London). Cattelan did a number of projects I wished I had thought of, including claiming he buried a piece under the Whitney Museum floor. Although it was written five years ago, it crystallized for me the work I saw as needing to be done today, philosophically and culturally in the environment of contemporary art as I understand it. Not too many people have read it, but it is available on my site (under "Writing").
I continue to work from those ideas.

Drew:
One book on my shelves, which I have not read, but want to is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You are really into motorcycles and you showed me your recreated systems diagram, which is a visual maze...is there a connection for you between art and riding or do you like to keep them separate?

Bill:
Motorcycles are sculptural. They accommodate the human form ergonomically, and could be said to be more design than art, but if you watch people who love motorcycles as they look at other motorcycles, their aesthetic appreciation is very similar to the art viewer. Some elements need to be where they are for support and function, but motorcycles designs vary wildly with infinite customization available. There is a reason that California Light and Space artists developed Finish Fetish works: we have year-round direct sunlight here, which transforms a well painted or chromed metal surface into a hallucinogenic sparkling gem. I took a course in motorcycle mechanics a year ago, and then acquired a 1974 Honda CB360 that hadn’t run since 1982. I tore this whole thing apart and put it back together, cleaned it up, and now the thing runs like a top. It may not be art, but riding it brings me a pleasure close to the satisfaction of having manifested a creative idea in the most eloquent and efficient way imaginable. I get to perform this satisfaction, and use my spatial relations as I move through space in time in an unconventional fashion. On top of which I can’t help but laugh like Pee-Wee Herman as I weave past LA traffic. Motorcycles are a clever solution to a cultural problem.

Drew:
Thank you for your time. I really look forward to seeing how your work develops.

Bill:
Thanks for looking and your questions! I wonder what I’m going to do next, too.