Los Angeles

Daniel Wheeler


Characterized less by the sterile estheticism of sculpture than by the exuberantly inviting playfulness of a children’s jungle gym, Daniel Wheeler’s interactive, almost architectural pieces politicize spatial relations, engaging the visitor with their tightly conceived, beautifully crafted forms. Drawing on Minimalism’s dogmatic monumentality, Wheeler eschews its macho “thereness,” extending its project in order to engage, even seduce, the spectator: his installations have a corporeal quality and present open-ended narratives that can only be completed by the gallery-goer.

Upon entering this show entitled “frontier,” you immediately encountered an over-six-foot-tall tentlike structure. Two armholes with pockets attached extended into the interior of the tent, enticing you to thrust your arms inside and grope about in the invisible space. After the momentary thrill of uncertainty, you discovered the quintessentially unnatural body of a stuffed coyote. The manipulative play of this piece, Untitled (foray), 1990–91, was complemented by that of its neighbor Untitled (reservoir), 1992, a large-roofed wooden cylinder mounted on scaffolding like a water tower. Again, you were invited to act—to climb a wooden ladder to reach a hole in the side of the cylinder. Within the hole an intense, velvety darkness enveloped your head as you looked inside—the kind of uncompromising blackness we can no longer experience naturally in our overdeveloped environment; you could hear yourself breathing, suddenly forced to enter into a dialogue with your own body. Beneath the tower, the concreteness of a stack of white cowboy hats in a burlap sack served as a counterpoint to the spare message of the architectural structure, breaking the intense physical exchange between the work and the visitor.

In Untitled (orbit), 1992, Wheeler continued his interrogation of the exploratory trajectory of (one assumes) the white man’s exploitation of the frontier. In this piece, a swivel chair hanging from a circular track mounted on the ceiling circumscribed a square shed with luminescent fiberglass walls. Dissuaded only by a sense of prudence from leaping into one of the dangling chairs, you were nonetheless impelled to walk around the piece to discover an almost door-sized opening through which were visible dozens of hovering origami animals and birds trapped inside.

Exploration was marked as a system of mapping that contains as it pretends to expand, a theme developed in Empire Builders, 1992, in which a steel hammock was similarly suspended from a circular track around the periphery of the gallery. Prohibited from mounting this enticing (yet surely uncomfortable) object, one was denied the participatory experience of some of the other works, but it was easy to imagine lying in the hulking web of steel and ominously circling the gallery along its track. An additional element foregrounded a message perhaps more powerful in its more oblique form: two tightly-packed blocks of chopsticks on the floor showed the imprints of large, certainly Anglo and male, feet. The violation of the Asian utensils by the tracks of intruders paralleled the appropriation and brutal industrialization of the originally handmade hammock.

Wheeler’s mode of sculptural storytelling gently interpellates rather than harasses, beckons and entertains rather than coerces the spectator. Through an open-ended narrativity that allows for and even solicits the expression of the visitor’s own desires, his work plays out the impossibility of exploring the new without simultaneously destroying it. Exploration is marked as exploitation, and you are forced to acknowledge your participatory role in forging this path.

Amelia Jones