By Bonnie Gangelhoff
For artistic inspiration, Utah-based painter Justin Wheatley enjoys visiting the Great Salt Lake, home of the Spiral Jetty. The monumental earthwork was created in 1970 by American artist Robert Smithson [1938-1973].
Shaped like a coil, the famous jetty is built entirely of mud, salt crystals, rocks, and earth on the Great Salt Lake. The 1,500-foot-long, 15-foot-wide artwork is visible only when the lake falls below a certain level. “Each time I go, it’s completely different,” Wheatley says. “One time the water is bright pink, and another time it’s blue. The whole jetty can be exposed one time, and the next time the whole thing can be submerged. It’s incredible to see how Mother Nature changes it.”
In many ways Wheatley’s mixed-media and acrylic paintings are like Smithson’s jetty: Both are concerned with the interaction and interrelationship of man and the environment. Wheatley is fond of combining the sharp angles of architectural structures with soft washes and scenes from the natural world. He says that the geometric elements in his works are intended not to destroy the landscape but rather to join the manmade with the natural harmoniously. And yet, he is the first to admit that the harmony can hold irony. “The hard lines, with all their presence and power, are momentary,” he says. “The work of the inhabitants will eventually disappear into the enveloping landscape controlled by elements and time.”
Wheatley, 30, first became interested in architecture when he studied abroad in Essen, Germany, while earning a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at Utah State University in Logan. Essen is located in an industrial region of the country, where the budding young artist had a chance to see what he calls “a nice marriage of modern and classical architecture and design. I was really impressed with how they could renovate an old building while still keeping its special, original feeling,” he says. “It helped me to not be afraid to take something already in existence and put a modern twist to it.”
In college Wheatley studied both photography and painting, but initially he didn’t think of combining them. Then he discovered a process that begins with printing out a photograph in reverse on architectural blotter paper. He then covers a wood panel with glue, places the paper with the image face down on the panel, and removes the paper. The ink from the image bonds to the surface of the glue, and the wood panel retains the image. He often completes this process with several layers of acrylic paint and additional photographic images.
Wheatley’s images of big-city buildings often originate from trips to New York City or San Francisco, while the images of homes spring from various neighborhoods in Salt Lake City. While other artists may scoop up the latest, lightest innovation in cameras to assist in their various processes, Wheatley prefers shooting with a Holga camera—a chunky, inexpensive plastic camera that is a throwback to the early days of photography.
Wheatley thinks a lot about the fact that people can see what’s on the outside of buildings, but not what goes on inside them or the layers of history inside their walls. “No matter what we make, construct, or destroy, we are still surrounded by the presence of what has existed since long before our time. I can’t help but feel that I am not a creator of art, only a manipulator of what already exists.”
Coda Gallery, Park City, UT; Evergreen Framing Co. & Gallery, Salt Lake City, UT; www.justinwheatley.com.
Solo show, Coda Gallery, March 25-April 17.
Featured in January 2011.