Sean Wheeler at AO Architecture: Process-Oriented
Sean Wheeler is a teacher who took up painting in February 2016. He says he had painted perhaps ten canvases in his life prior to that, but at that time, at age 42, and without any training, he plunged into painting in a big way. On the heels of a job change, the death of his mother, a divorce, and moving into an apartment by himself, he began a three-year, process-oriented binge that to date has produced approximately 425 paintings, and not small ones: many of them measure three- to five-feet on a side. He didn’t take classes; he just kept doing it, and doing it, and doing it. He continues to produce three or four finished canvases every week.
A well-edited collection of the results is on view in the AO Architecture office at the Hamilton Building. The exhibit came about because AO proprietor Adam Rosekelly had seen some of Wheeler’s paintings around the building. Many of the paintings are tagged IIOIVI, which is a Roman numeric treatment of the Cleveland area code: not two hundred-sixteen, but two-one-six. Rosekelly and Patsy Kline (who had done some design work for Ingenuity, and is proprietor of Haus Tremont, and perhaps most famously Gallery U-Haul, and prior to that, back in Tremont’s glory days, Gallery U) chose the paintings from the full spectrum of his output.
Under the circumstances, it’s impossible not to connect Wheeler’s work to the idea of therapy. Writing by Facebook exchange about taking up painting at a point in life when he was suddenly alone for much of the time, he both dismisses and acknowledges the idea:
“I decided that I needed to not only learn how to live by myself, but [that] I’d have to find a way for that time to have meaning. I didn’t want to be the guy at the end of the bar complaining about his shitty lot. I didn’t want to be around my friends and constantly burden them with my breakdown. I was lost, but knew that if I was to get out of that mindset, I’d have to boil myself down to some core elements and build from there.”
But on the other hand: “I think it’d be easy for people to imagine me painting my feelings or some other trauma-like reaction to my inner world. But that wasn’t the thing for me. I knew I sucked at painting and the whole way I was dealing with the trauma was to make myself a novice and go through the whole learning process that my education theory was based on. I wanted mastery. But how to do that without training? Volume. I’d just keep doing what I was doing until I started to see what I wanted to see.”
But perhaps the best therapy is unintentional, a kind of intuitive self-medication, driven by the urge to find value in life.
Anyone who has talked with Wheeler about teaching and pedagogical theory knows he is a person who can go off on a tear, which at one point led him far down the road of developing a hands-on experiential learning model, which continues to drive his teaching. It also figures large in this exhibit: You can see in the range of work that the painter is trying out different ways of manipulating the paint and following multiple, marginally related paths in his content: Some pure abstraction, some primitive figures, sometimes the integration of text. There’s a naïve and un-ashamed, un-affected quality about them. One of the largest paintings in this show had previously appeared in the massive, un-juried People’s Art Show in the Galleries of CSU, and caused CSU gallery director Robert Thurmer to say—without knowing the painter, or anything about him, “I wish I could paint like that.”
In all of Wheeler’s canvases you can see the materiality of paint: they are primitive, and largely about working with the liquid, smear-able, scratch-able, paste-y qualities of the stuff. The texture and layering are a significant part of the appeal. He says some of them are “finished” over and over again before they reach their final state, and he leaves some of that history visible, a pentimento making the point that the process is the point.
Some are figurative: they represent people in a way that is more evolved than the childish, “head-footer” style of outsider art, but not much. The faces are flat, the proportions are not “correct,” the lines are done without finesse. Those traits really are not the point. In these you can see influences of artists from Cleveland’s own The Sign Guy to Jean-Michel Basquiat. It’s a common learning and teaching technique to imitate what one likes, which Wheeler acknowledges he does.
Wheeler is a writer and English teacher, and that plays out both in titles (there’s a series named for Sisyphus’s rock) and in words painted on the canvas. In those cases where text has been included on the canvas, he says he’s had feedback that he should improve his lettering. But again, the polish is not the point here.
Some of the paintings are almost completely abstract, but have lines of rectangles that allude to cityscapes; some are defined by orbs that look like stones, or suns, or planets. These are the ones that show the working of paint to the greatest degree, and which—from this set—most powerfully drive the message that it’s all about working stuff out.
This was Wheeler’s first ever exhibit. With something like ninety percent of his work never having seen the light of day, it would be easy for him to produce additional shows for a long time without repeating. In light of the prodigious pace of his output, though, what would be more interesting is to see what comes next.
Sean Wheeler will give an artist talk in the AO office / gallery at 7 pm Thursday, June 20. The exhibit will be on view through Friday, June 28.