Jason Wheatley | The Idiosyncratic World of Jason Wheatley

Rainy Day Surprise [1998], oil, 24 x 28.,painting, southwest art.
Rainy Day Surprise [1998], oil, 24 x 28.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Jason Wheatley is thinking out loud, mulling over the question of which artists inspire him. Gustave Courbet [1819-1877], the young Salt Lake City painter says, then explains his affinity for the French artist. “I like his take on realism,” he says. “Of course during Courbet’s time what he painted was considered realism, but today it’s not. I mean, how real is it to walk through the woods and paint two nude women in a forest?”

Wheatley says he considers Courbet’s art fantastic realism, and such an “ism” could easily be applied to Wheatley’s own work. After all, how real is it for a perplexed turtle to stare up at a frog ascending heavenward, as portrayed in his painting Amphibious Ascension? And how real is it for two rabbits to converge on a kitchen table near a cup and saucer as depicted in Rainy Day Surprise?

Amphibious Ascension [1999], oil, 31 x 25.,painting, southwest art.
Amphibious Ascension [1999], oil, 31 x 25.

Although Wheatley may be inspired by Courbet, there is nothing derivative about the work of this 20th-century fantasy realist. He brings his own contemporary blend of tension, intrigue, humor, and beauty to his still-life canvases.

At 26, the up-and-coming artist might be called a Wunderkind of sorts. Consider that the artist already had two galleries representing him before he even graduated from the University of Utah in 1998. Consider also that his first solo show outside the university at Coda Gallery in Palm Desert, CA, last March nearly sold out before it opened. Consider, too, that the Springville Museum of Art in Springville, UT, featured his work in the annual Spring Salon this year and then bought Wheatley’s painting Yellow Bluff for its permanent collection. “We couldn’t ignore him. He is original, authentic, and has an aesthetic vision,” says Vern G. Swanson, museum director. “His work is emphatic. It doesn’t just sit on the wall and get soggy. Instead viewers get whiplash if they try to walk by it too fast.”

Stone Keeper [1998], oil, 24 x 31.,painting, southwest art.
Stone Keeper [1998], oil, 24 x 31.

Wheatley’s studio is situated on the edge of downtown Salt Lake City in an area known as the Marmalade District, where the streets bear names like Apricot and Almond. He shares a converted marine shop with six other young painters, all friends. The Marma-lade Arts Co-op, as it’s known, is a hodge-podge space with walls created from old stage props.

His designated work space is a bright, 400-square-foot corner with huge windows on the north side and a skylight. It’s cluttered with a mass of brushes, toothpicks, sponges, terry cloth, cheesecloth, and Q-tips, which he uses in large quantities to define the edges of his work. There are plenty of other things here too—the objects captured in his still lifes: wood treasure chests, green rubber galoshes, Buddhas, bowls, vases, vessels, chopsticks, teapots, shopping bags, and piles of rocks.

Flightless Grace: Two Chickens [1998], oil, 30 x 46.,painting, southwest art.
Flightless Grace: Two Chickens [1998], oil, 30 x 46.

He used to keep a parrot in the studio both for company and for use in his paintings, but the bird squawked too much and was too possessive. “He kept murmuring and attacking people who came in to see me,” Wheatley says. These days a viewer is more likely to see pelicans in a Wheatley work than a parrot; studying the graceful birds is his latest obsession. “I can keep painting them again and again,” he says. “They keep revealing certain new aspects of what they are.”

Yellow Bluff [1999], oil, 40 x 46.,painting, southwest art.
Yellow Bluff [1999], oil, 40 x 46.

Like many still-life artists, Wheatley says he often feels like a stage director—arranging and rearranging objects on a makeshift stage that consists of a painted board resting on two storage bins. When it comes to the main stars of his dramas, animals, he generally works from photographs or sketches he has taken of a nearby bird sanctuary. In his studio he paints the creatures so many times that he’s eventually able to portray them from memory. These days, for example, he needs no visual references to depict pelicans, egrets, magpies, fish, or rabbits.

On occasion he brings a “live actor” into his studio, as he did recently with a chicken—an event that turned slightly surreal. Though Wheatley was merely attempting to document the chicken with some bowls for a tableau he would later paint, he nonetheless needed the chicken to look alert. Unfortunately it was so docile and relaxed that its bright red comb kept flopping forward. Wheatley soon found his directorial efforts turning into a slight theater of the absurd as he gently prodded the chicken under the chin with a stick when its comb drooped. Still, he gives the bird a lot of credit. “It sat much longer than some models, especially for a chicken. It didn’t move for 30 minutes,” he says. An avid animal lover, he wants to assure the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that the chicken exited its theatrical debut with no physical or emotional scars.

While both Wheatley and his work can be humorous, the artist is quick to point out that he never wants his paintings to become simple, one-line jokes. Nor does he want viewers to find his work to be an obtuse, complex maze. “Some artists become obsessed with completely personalized narratives accessible only to themselves. Their work is like a private diary,” he says. “Well, no one wants to read a person’s diary unless it’s Anne Frank’s.”

What he does want is for his art to work on many levels first and foremost, for its beauty. As he puts it, “I sort of dabble in the absurd and make it accessible and beautiful at the same time.” He also wants to invite viewers into his scenes, encouraging their own interpretations. In a Wheatley work viewers often have the sense they are walking into a drama in the second act, and the mystery is perplexing. They don’t know what happened before or what will transpire in the future, but their curiosity is piqued.

For example, a viewer might puzzle over the amusing work Amphibious Ascension. Why is the frog floating skyward? Why does the turtle stare up at the airborne frog with such a perplexed expression? As Wheatley explains, the depiction is his own quirky take on the idea that some creatures (humans included) “are so great on earth that they are beamed into the sky.”

But as soon as the words slip from his lips, Wheatley seems to regret sharing the interpretation as if it will spoil the joy of discovery for viewers. “I want people to feel like they have stumbled onto a riddle,” he says. Wheatley himself is fond of turning the television on in the middle of a show and imagining what has already happened in the small-screen dramas; he surfs from show to show, seldom stopping to view an entire one.

In similar fashion he asks the viewer to ponder the riddles of his canvases. There may not be many television shows that star magpies and stones a few of the usual cast members in a Wheatley made-for-still-life drama. But in the artist’s world, a stone is not just
a stone but a metaphor. “The stones have come to represent human sentimentality those sort of psychological packages we collect, store, stack, and guard,” he says.

The soul of his work, he adds, “seems to be revealed in the eyes of the creature.” Animals in his work are sometimes under-studies for people. Take Stone Keeper, the starkly provocative portrayal of two magpies sitting on bowls of rocks as if guarding them. The magpie on the right has its beak open as if squealing “no trespassing” warnings to the quieter, more passive magpie. That’s possible, says Wheatley, listening to one viewer’s interpretation. Or maybe it’s about people guarding emotions at all costs and sacrificing precious and meaningful things like spirituality, he says. “Or maybe…” and he goes off on a serpentine trail of more interpretations. The verbal trail ends, and Wheatley says, “If I pour passion into a painting and it becomes personal, that will ooze out onto the canvas and people will feel it. That’s all that’s important.”

One of Wheatley’s strengths as a painter is his ability to create tension in his works. He juxtaposes odd objects that wouldn’t normally be grouped together and succeeds in getting the viewer to suspend disbelief. Why, for example, are two chickens sitting on a kitchen table in Flightless Grace? The chickens don’t belong there. Chaos could ensue in an instant. Yet they squat on the table with Zenlike serenity as if this was a common nesting spot. Wheatley is fond of manipulating polarities—in this case, serenity and tension.

David Dornan, a painter and Wheatley’s former professor at the University of Utah, points out another strength. “Jason is able to see the poetry in the ordinary,” Dornan says.

In his best work, there is an element of personal narrative, Wheatley says a struggle, a problem, a decision. A pelican may represent the virtue of charity, a turtle his grandfather. Or a golden Whippet dog could represent aspects of himself, confronting a rabbit that is a personification of his hopes as in Yellow Bluff. “Everything in my work relates to human emotions and experiences to just being human,” he says.

Wheatley’s biggest fear is stagnation. For this reason he slows down every March and again in August to recharge and reflect on his work. He creates only one or two works instead of the usual four a month. Twice a year he travels to Helper, an old mining town two hours south of Salt Lake City. Dornan, on an extended leave of absence from the university, has opened a kind of atelier there in a renovated hotel with living quarters and studios for visiting artists. Wheatley credits Dornan with showing him that still lifes can be about more than just “dead flowers and fruit” by pushing the idiom into new, expressive directions.

So far, Wheatley says he has never been blocked artistically. One painting leads to another like an extended dialogue. “Beginning a new work is much like beginning a conversation. You’re not quite sure what you’re going to say or where the conversation may end up. The dialog is an active process, and the painting leaves a record of this event,” he says. “Paintings continue to come to me like an ongoing conversation in my own idiosyncratic world.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Coda Gallery, Palm Desert, CA, and Park City, UT; and Gallery A, Salt Lake City, UT.

Featured in December 1999