Space Exploration: Artist Jeffrey Wheeler Leaves Lubbock for Parts Unknown

“I wish I could tell you where I’m going next—it’s the mother ship of all studios—but I can’t yet.”

Jeffrey Wheeler’s studio is in disarray. He’s pushed the partitions that normally provide the barrier between exhibition space and atelier in his live-work apartment to the north so that they line the entrance of the gallery. The window-lined overhead doors are rolled up, allowing the breeze to rustle drawings that are still mounted to the exhibition side of the screens. These portable dividers eclipse the sunlight, darkening the den-like interior of the studio. The scent from a spent reed of incense hangs in the air, and works-in-progress hang on the walls. Framed artworks are scattered throughout the space, propped up by various pieces of furniture. Artifacts, books and magazines, and flotsam of all kinds litter tabletops. It’s hard to believe that, in a few short weeks, Wheeler—one of the pioneer artists to inhabit the Charles Adams Studio Project (CASP)—will be packing it all up, throwing out what he can’t take, and vacating the space that he’s occupied for five years.

Jeffrey Wheeler: (detail) "Actual Scene" (in progress) (Photocredit: Ashley Webb)

I settle into a damask divan (a couch of this style can only be called “a divan”) as Wheeler bounds in. “I’d offer you something to drink, but all I have is beer,” he says, settling into a chair across from me as I pull a bottle of water from my bag.

At my first question—about how wide, open spaces, the stage of West Texas landscape, is a character within his work—Wheeler’s propelled out of his seat again, fetching an example. “Let me get pretty specific with this,” he murmurs as he rifles through stacks of works, bringing back a drawing featuring barren plains dotted with barbwire fence posts. He describes finishing his undergraduate degree at Texas Tech University in 1993, having lived in West Texas throughout his early life. All he wanted were the rivers, mountains, and greenery of Central Washington, where he went to pursue his MFA.

While moving into his studio there, he found the piece of discarded canvas that became the ground for this desolate landscape drawing. Even though twenty years had intervened since he made it, Wheeler still seems incredulous. “There I am, surrounded by mountains and trees,” he says, shaking his head and tilting the drawing back as he regards it, “and what did I draw but the damn West Texas landscape?”

It was there, with that first work of his MFA experience, that Wheeler realized how he could play with space. “The only thing I knew for sure was that I was going to paint what I know. It’s never changed since then—the West Texas landscape is my own, personal stage. Everything I did in grad school became visual characters all playing out on that stage. It just happens to be autobiographical.” That playhouse is peppered with homey, typecast actors—burger joints, babes, and barbwire—performing alongside cameos by Picasso, Dali, Hockney, and Ruscha.

Jeffrey Wheeler: Just Outside Lamesa (Image Courtesy of the Artist)

Throughout his career, Jeffrey Wheeler’s studios have included a barn loft in Hilmsen, Germany, the vast openness of an abandoned Furr’s Cafeteria in Lubbock, and his soon-to-be-vacated live-work studio at CASP, where he’s been the longest. I ask him if occupying and working in those very different kinds of spaces have affected the nature of his work. He considers this for a moment, admitting that—early in his art career—he carried that vision of the artist working alone in the studio loft, collapsing into bed at the end of the day: “I thought I had to have that.”

“But,” he continues, “I’ve since realized that you have to take whatever’s at hand and make art out of it. I’ve done that from the barn in Germany to LHUCA [Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts] here. You have to be open to what’s around you. The space in my head, that’s not going to change.”

To illustrate, he’s up out of his chair again, culling additional examples. “It’s all about timing, letting things come to me. An artist should be able to make something very special out of the mundane.” Jeffrey brings me several Duchamp-like ready-mades created from thrift store figurines, vases, and plates. He’s plastered all of them with gestural paintings of 1950s yearbook portraits, Warhol Brillo pads, and buttocks inspired by Mexican vintage pulp fiction. Each work packs campy nostalgia with sarcastic wit, perhaps even poking self-interested fun at the art market: “Three dollars plus three dollars equals two thousand dollars,” Wheeler remarks wryly.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. (Or isn’t it? Don’t the raw materials of any work of art amount to a similar equation?) It’s precisely the how of Jeff’s juxtapositions, and the why—coupled with a Panhandle Plains work ethic and a keen eye for collaboration—that lend to the layers of connotations and denotations implied in each piece. It occurs to me that Jeffrey implicates himself, too, in his satiric scrutiny of his home stage. Reminiscent of Regionalist painter Grant Wood’s loving lampoons of his Iowa neighbors, Wheeler’s parodies have an I-can-make-fun-of-my-family-but-don’t-let-me-catch-you-outsiders-doing-it sort of edge to them. His art simultaneously spoofs and celebrates the factual-absurdities that encompass the Texas myth. And Jeffrey Wheeler, a PK, or preacher’s kid, is an embodiment of those harmonious incongruities that seem to amplify louder and louder the further west into remote Texas regions that you travel.

Grant Wood: Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

One of the works that Jeffrey has fetched for me to see is a collaborative collage made with Ryan Geiger. I ask him how his collaborations—with his brother Bryan, artist-songwriter Daniel Johnston, and James Porter—have affected his art. How has that shared space of the picture plane, that visual dialogue, changed the nature of his work?

"Sunrise Salutations" Daniel Johnston and Jeff F. Wheeler (Photocredit: Ashley Webb)

“I was an artist collaborating from Day One,” Wheeler replies, shrugging. It began with fellow grad student James Porter, who told Jeffrey he wanted to paint his skies with Wheeler’s clouds. One night, Porter sneaked into Jeffrey’s studio and tacked a landscape to the wall; thus began the collaboration. Jeffrey would add to the work, and return it to James, the back-and-forth continuing until the piece was finished. “It was a way to have a dialogue without talking at all. We never talked face-to-face . . . I wanted a surprise, and working this way—it’s really a surprise.”

It’s also how the fictitious artist Franklin Ackerley was born. A mashup of both Porter’s and Wheeler’s middle names, Ackerley became the fictional frontman through which the two artists could market their cooperative works. He became such a stock character that he and Porter would hire actors to play him, including the 1997 Arizona Biennial at the Tucson Museum of Art. “We hired my friend—six-four with dreadlocks and flip-flops, and a girl on each arm. We were his assistants—we even got a limousine! People thought, ‘Oh damn, Franklin Ackerley must be something.’ He signed autographs, he was the rock star of the whole night.” When the director of the museum approached Wheeler to say he’d like to take Ackerley up to his office for drinks, Jeffrey facilitated the introduction. “We started to follow them up to the office,” he recollects, laughing, “but we were told, ‘just him, not y’all.’” He concedes that their hired Ackerley never revealed the subject of his conversation with the museum director. On at least one occasion, Ackerley has been a female artist named Frankie Ackerley for a Key West exhibition featuring art by women. “Her work made the cover of the magazine.”

“Did you ever come clean?” I ask Jeffrey.

“Not about that one,” he admits.

“You pick your partners wisely,” Wheeler comments of his cooperative escapades. Other collaborations have included Daniel Johnston, whose art was included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial—“I wanted some of his work, and I couldn’t afford it”—as well as with brother Bryan, who’s recently completed a doctorate in art history at Texas Tech University. It was the long-time partnership with Bryan that yielded the first Ulterior Motifs in 1999. The art-music spectacle—which has included cheerleaders, jugglers, and hoopla of a similar ilk, all rolled into a visual-performance extravaganza of truly Texas proportions—began in Lubbock at the Wheeler Bros. Studios. Over the years, though, it has hit the road, touring to locales throughout the state, such as Dallas, Amarillo, Arlington, New Braunfels, Huntsville, and Houston. There’s even talk of it going nationwide, perhaps even transatlantic. I ask Jeffrey about Ulterior Motifs’ beginnings, how it’s altered over the years, and how the different locations have changed the experience of the event.

Jeffrey Wheeler: Actual Scene (in progress) (Photocredit: Ashley Webb)

“I learned from grad school, and from Franklin Ackerley, that you have to create a stir, have big parties,” Jeffrey explains, adding that, after the momentum of graduate school, “[Bryan and I] didn’t want to sit around and become stale . . . We didn’t want just an art show where people come and drink wine and look at pictures. We wanted it raucous, for the community to come together. That’s how we still do it today.”

He adds, “It was only the first two times that it [Ulterior Motifs] was just us with our friends.” During those nascent years, the extravaganza caught the attention of Rainey Knudson of Glasstire. By the fourth annual event, Ulterior Motifs was invited to travel to Houston by The Art Guys. It was there that Jeffrey and Bryan met Nancy Kienholz, along with Wayne Gilbert, Sharon Kopriva, and other Texas art glitterati. UM #5 was back in Lubbock, but this time with a section including the Houston artists the Wheeler boys had met. The event had become a “Texas survey of art, known for art and what comes with it . . . In the bigger cities, they expect just a normal exhibit, so they were blown over—there’s rock-and-roll and weird stuff going on.”

One of the things that Jeffrey is most proud of with Ulterior Motifs is that it comes from artists and is for artists, “without fancy curators, anything museum, no stuffy committees, no sponsors . . . That spirit of freedom, you feel it going in. We don’t have to answer to anybody.” Though his upcoming move had pushed back his planning a bit, Wheeler’s looking forward to Ulterior Motifs’ continuing 15th anniversary tour. Next stop is Arlington Museum of Art in September (the show kicked off at LHUCA in late 2014), for two months. “The director really loves what we’re doing with it. He told us to dream big, what do we really want out of this? It’s not just an opening, but every two weeks, there’s another reason to come back. Daniel Johnston will play a concert—which he rarely does—and there’ll be artist lectures, workshops with kids, more reasons to come to the museum through the run of the show.” After Arlington, the show will open at artist James Surls’ soon-to-reopen Splendora studio. After that, Wheeler’s not sure yet, but the show will go on.

“So what’s next?” I ask Wheeler. “Where are you headed?”

He just smiles, restraining himself, though I can see he wants to bound from his seat once more; instead, he stays put and says, “I wish I could tell you where I’m going next. It’s the mother ship of all studios, but I can’t yet . . .” Too much is still in the works. But moments later he relents a little, “Maybe I’ll tell you by the end of the interview. Off the record.”

By the end of my time with Jeffrey Wheeler, I haven’t decided if he’s a flimflam man of Texas tent revival proportions (he did do a stint helping with Steve Martin’s Leap of Faith when it was filmed in Plainview), a smart-satirist-artist, a hard-partying workaholic, or a shrewd observer-opportunist of the art world. Wheeler’s perhaps all of those things. Like the characters on the stage-set of his drawings, he represents the collision of all the bluster, brashness, humor, and hardiness of the Texas Panhandle. He throws me a bit of a curveball, though, when he grows quieter and more reflective.

“I have an unhealthy love for this place,” he admits a bit wistfully, looking down at his hands. “I shouldn’t have been here this long . . . That romantic being-out-here—nobody knows I’m working in my studio every day for fourteen years. I never felt like I was missing anything, either. It offered me cheap space and time to do my thing, and it’s been great and wonderful. I love that.”

Wheeler allows that he’s excited about his future, adding, “It’s not easy leaving Lubbock. I am of this place, I want to build it here. To me, that matters. Our time here has been very important. I’ll miss it a lot.”

Then he tells me where he’s going next.

Jeffrey Wheeler: You are Not Part of This Experience (Image Courtesy of the Artist)

This is the last time to come see new Wheeler Bros. work before the big move:

“Newfangled Notions no.8”

(new work and collaborations by Bryan Wheeler and Jeff F. Wheeler)

Music by Tim Wheeler, Bryan Wheeler, and Kent Mings.

One Night Only

First Friday Art Trail

May 6, 2016

6:00 p.m. to ?

Farm 2 Market Arts:

1010 Mac Davis Lane #1

Lubbock, TX 79401

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