The art of Doug Wheeler surveys the edges of sensorial perception, usually in installations that rework the entire architectural experience of a space. Wheeler was one of the 'Light and Space' artists based in Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s. 'Light and Space'—sometimes called a movement, sometimes more generally referred to as an emerging set of shared considerations—is reminiscent of Minimalism in its simple gestures focused on geometric form. However, in 'Light and Space', as the name would imply, the emphasis is on spatial and optical experience. Wheeler's contemporaries in this field include Larry Bell, John McCracken and Robert Irwin.Read More
Throughout his career, Wheeler has explored the subtleties of optical perception. His early experiments with this subject were large abstract paintings on canvas. Untitled (1964), for example, is a large white canvas with a lightly coloured edge, making it appear to float rather than sit on the wall. Later, Wheeler began working with multiple media in his paintings, including neon. In his 'Encasement' series, Wheeler made paintings out of fabricated acrylic bordered by neon tubing so that either the painting or the space around the painting glowed. From these early works, Wheeler progressed to immersive installations. In SA MI DW SM 2 75 (1975), the gallery space, coved and lit with ultraviolent and quartz-halogen light, seems borderless and limitless to the viewer who experiences it. In these installations the viewer is able to step directly into a Wheeler painting. Wheeler eventually became best-known for these Minimalist environments and their exploration of optical limits.
Though Wheeler has created many large-scale and immersive installations throughout his life, a few more ambitious projects remain unrealised. This list of theoretical works was lessened by one when, in 2017, Wheeler's PSAD Synthetic Desert III was brought to life as a site-specific installation for Doug Wheeler: PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1971 (24 March–2 August 2017) at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York. PSAD Synthetic Desert III was part of a series of installations Wheeler planned during the 1960s and 1970s. Of these designs, PSAD Synthetic Desert III is the first to have been carried out, more than 40 years after its initial conception in 1968. The plans of PSAD Synthetic Desert III were acquired by Count Giuseppe Panza, who subsequently donated them to a number of museums including the Guggenheim. The exhibition was initiated by the Panza Collection Initiative (PCI) group, whose focus is on on the preservation and presentation of Panza's gifts to the museum. The installation is comprised of an hermetically sealed, immersive, semi-anechoic chamber that takes complete optical and acoustic control of the viewer's senses with the aid of pyramidal absorbers made of industrial polymer. All aspects of the installation are designed to suck the sound out of the space. The room—both visually and sonically—encourages a feeling of infinitude.
The sense of open space created in the installation recalls the artist's personal context; Wheeler himself compares his created environment to the immense deserts of northern Arizona—the area in which he grew up. Though PSAD Synthetic Desert III is based on this experience of nature, it is presented as an abstract geometric composition that seems more akin to the cyberspace than desert space. In New York, where people live close together and city sounds permeate all corners, PSAD Synthetic Desert III is a jolt into silence. Visitors could only enter in groups of five at most, and the maximum stay was 10 minutes. In the installation, all but the most unavoidable sounds (footsteps, pink noise, the sounds of one's own body) are suppressed. The deprivation of sensory stimulation causes a hyper-awareness of all sounds that can be detected both while in the space and once back in reality. In such installations as PSAD Synthetic Desert III Wheeler alters the participants' senses, allowing them to become more conscious of the world around them.
Wheeler has been exhibited at Tate, London; MoMA PS1, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. His work is held in numerous prestigious collections including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Wheeler lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Biography by Casey Carsel | Ocula | 2018