“The painting shows the façade but the work speaks beneath the surface,” says Justin Wheatley about his multi-media paintings, a new batch of which are currently on exhibit at Salt Lake’s 15th Street Gallery. His canvases and sculptures are intricately layered, including subjects such as buildings, homes, and bridges, latticed with abstracted line, shape, color, plane, symbol, and detail. In a visual play, Wheatley deconstructs the physicality of the façade of his subject. As this new exhibit of urban-themed collage works demonstrates, Justin Wheatley creates a multifaceted statement that is visually powerful and cognitively complex, weaving an ongoing fabric of existential meaning. Whether his subject is a Salt Lake bungalow or the Brooklyn Bridge, Wheatley’s mixed-media paintings are easily recognizable for their formal qualities, but those surface elements are mere indications of what the pieces are ultimately about.
Wheatley’s paintings are each abstract commentaries on shades of reality, the structures on their surfaces visual ciphers to lead the viewer’s mind into a labyrinth of meanings. For Wheatley, those meanings are based in very personal experiences. “My beliefs have always been a part of my work,” he says. “To me it is very evident, right there, easy to see. At the same time, I realize that it is not evident or easy to see for the majority of people that look at the work.” Wheatley’s invocation of the material world is also a meditation on existential reality, but his is an existentialism that does not question and nullify but provokes and contemplates.
The play between the seen and the unseen has always appeared in Wheatley’s works. In his earlier pieces, suburban homes acted as vessels for metaphorical meanderings. A piece like “Play,” with its bright and “pop-ish” setting full of lucid color and graphic form that uplifts the spirit and pleases the eye, is hard not to like. The home has a yellow door, a blue roof, and a quintessentially green lawn. The entire scene is layered with examples of Wheatley’s geometric iconography — here bright dots and “X’s” in many colors: red, pale blue, green and also black. There are large bands of white crossing in front and behind the home, and where a tree might be there is a large black dot beside a black line that is bisected by a white line. All of this play is further enhanced by filigrees of white.
In this case, the visual play and the loaded color and whimsical form comment on the intrinsic and essential nature of the suburban landscape itself. Wheatley’s works explore existential tensions, like that between the physical artificiality of the home and the spiritual naturalism of the human lives and memories that fill it. According to the artist, “As the title suggests, it is directly related to the laughter you hear when passing by a yard full of kids playing or a park with a slide and swings. There are so many layers of memories that we reflect on. We can choose to dwell on the positive ones, or we can choose otherwise. This is a reflection on kick the can, cops and robbers, and the Fourth of July.”
“Play” is a contemplation of meaning, memory and a context of truth, probing how a house can be considered veritable reality when all is manufactured hyperbole. Its frontality and the direct rendering of the structure of the home, its yellow door and blue roof and perfectly trim green grass, all allude to the manufactured state of the fabricated home. How does this allude to the authenticity of the lives, which dwell in this manufactured and artificial existence? Where is the reality in this?
“I’ve spent a long time exploring the relationship between architecture and nature,” says Wheatley. “We build beautiful buildings and shrines and we travel to see them and talk about them and fight over them. But they are only temporary. In the end they will lose to nature. They lose in beauty and in strength. It’s a reminder to me that God’s creation is so much more than what we create as humans.”
In his new body of work Wheatley has concentrated on American urban scenes, visiting cities on both coasts, and points in between. His visually complex “Bridge” features the Brooklyn Bridge with the perspective of its string of cables placing the viewer at its center. The bridge is broken up by segmented lines of bright scarlet red with one continuous line, a collage of newspaper fragments growing larger from bottom to top, forming a line of gradient size, like the turquoise next to it, from bottom to top. With a presentation that is provocative and visually cunning, it is the sort of piece to compliment any kind of gallery space.
Yet beneath the surface of this visually astute image lie myriad musings on existential reality that Wheatley dares the audience to discover. One might find the bridge to be one of stone and mortar, the kind that is already old, a classic bridge that is definitive of its age yet whose very age is a statement that implies the passing of time and the reality of transcendent being. The viewer is brought into this being as they are drawn into the temporality of the bridge via the perspective view created by the cable structure.
The bright red and blue add further notes of artifice, notes that suggest that what appears in stone is not reality but an illusion of it. The line of newspaper is a capstone to this existential vocabulary, contributing a notion of history, of further temporality and place. Says Wheatley, “The Brooklyn Bridge is an icon. That initially would make any serious artist want to avoid it. Take a step on that bridge and there is no going back to the idea that it is a cliché. It’s gritty and it’s beautiful. It is line and shape and texture. I didn’t want to do any work involving the Brooklyn Bridge, but now I have trouble escaping it.”
The viewer is caught at a moment, frozen in this stone setting, within a cluster of bright color, with references to history, finding themselves not small, but giants. These giants will themselves transcend time, unlike stone, and are essentially real, unlike the garish color, and exemplify eternity rather than fragmented history. These are very spiritual as well as humanist themes, speaking of the transcendental nature of reality as opposed to the temporal, artificial one humanity finds a place in.
This is best seen in “NYC Blocks,” part of an exciting new 3-D departure for the artist. A large wall sculpture measuring 48”x 24,” the piece is comprised of variously sized vertical blocks upon which are applied photographic images that Wheatley captured on a recent sojourn in New York. The piece is visually gripping in variety and color and the very essence of urbanity. Each of the images is a fragment of a building, with windows and doorways, a partial of the whole, and each of the segments, when placed within the totality, is an implication of a city, albeit fractured and abstract.
The work suggests that just as one might believe one possesses one’s own unique reality, and therefore is a relative being, in truth, each of us is part of a greater reality. No individual is separate and no reality is isolated. No man, as Donne tells us, is an island. “The New York piece reflects that feeling of being surrounded by structures in every direction,” Wheatley says. “Unlike a canyon wall, the structures were hollow. They were filled with people. The people could be looking out, but they wouldn’t be looking at me. In a desert canyon it is you and God. In a New York street it is you and a million shadows.” It is a brilliant piece that works visually and metaphorically on a conceptual level of much gravity. It might be Wheatley’s ultimate statement of his belief in a unifying universal force upon which all are centered — God.
All artists, and those of us drawn to art, are intrigued by the visual, physical world. But art should speak to something beyond just the physical. Those who love Wheatley’s work for its visually intriguing language will find, if they spend time with these pieces, that the artist also creates with his compositions complex existential metaphors full of dynamic tensions; and they will come to value and appreciate Wheatley as an artist with a sensibility vastly greater in spirituality, intelligence and artistic possibility.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.