Head games

Deb Todd Wheeler and Ben Sloat give conceptual art a kick
By GREG COOK  |  June 10, 2010

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HIGH SEA: Wheeler is a standout among Boston’s crew of conceptual sculptors; her prop-derived art packs a punch.

One of the best artworks seen around here in recent years was Newton artist Deb Todd Wheeler's installation Live Experiments in Human Energy Exchange, at the (now defunct) Green Street Gallery in Jamaica Plain in 2006. It was a Rube Goldberg contraption in which a bicycle (that visitors could pedal) powered lights that illuminated ant farms built into silhouettes of futuristic buildings from the 1964 New York World's Fair, a fan that fluttered a paper hummingbird, an old speaker that piped out woozy sounds from the fair, and paper butterflies that flapped atop a crude wooden model of Biosphere 2 (the failed attempt to replicate the earth's ecosystem in Arizona greenhouses). It was a funny, rueful, crackpot utopian vision of dropping off the grid to escape the collapse dictated by our addiction to fossil fuels. (Hello, BP oil leak!)

“Deb Todd Wheeler: Blew” | Miller Block Gallery, 38 Newbury Street, Boston | Through June 26

“Ben Sloat: This Midas Earth” | Steven Zevitas Gallery, 450 Harrison Avenue, Boston | Through August 14

Wheeler subsequently exhibited smaller, more-polished versions and variations of this project. In shows over the past year, she invited visitors to make flowers from wire and plastic bags, or weave strips of plastic into a hooked rug depicting a moth. The audience-participation pieces tended to get bogged down in process. And none of this matched the expansiveness and seat-of-the-pants vitality of Live Experiments.

"Blew," her current exhibit at Miller Block Gallery, incorporates the polish of her post–Green Street sculptures while also partaking of Live Experiments' ambition. The showstopper is High Sea (2010), an 11-foot-wide photographic image of tremendous waves of a stormy blue-green-black sea. It makes one think of Turner, or Homer, or Hokusai's Great Wave, but gone rabid, mean, heartless. And it's a lovely special effect. Wheeler built a box atop a computer scanner and then rippled blue plastic — from newspaper delivery bags — atop the scanner's lens and recorded them. The final panoramic image is assembled from 21 scans. "Anything that's black is the space above [the scanner]," she tells me. "Anything that's light is touching the scanner or reflecting the scanner light."

I can't help wondering whether the title isn't punning on the drink Hi-C — originally named for its vitamin-C content, but now generally seen as an artificially flavored fruit-ish drink. If so, that speaks to Wheeler's theme of a plastic world, of how the artificial imitates and merges with the natural. This idea can also be seen in her Men of War (2010) scans, in which plastic bags — which she manipulated with hot glue and heat — gorgeously masquerade as jellyfish drifting in black depths.

Wheeler says she's been "looking at plastics as a really beautiful material, in spite of all the trouble it causes. That ended up being an important metaphor for all the work. All of my work in general is about interdependence. It's an examination of how we're interconnected with everything. There's a seeming feeling that we're individual beings, but we're actually not."

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