Jeff Wheeler organizes picture after picture as sort of pared-down panhandle landscape in his signature orange and yellow stripes, using it as stage set for a parched circus of iconic images: little round swimming pools, grain elevators, a flying grizzly bear, Demoiselles from Avignon, big-booty thong girls: a conceptual model of life in an empty brown land where grasshoppers dream of grass.
The most interesting change in this particular show is the way Wheeler’s outlaw stance is becoming blurred: part self-conscious posing, part real hayseed. Beneath the layer of self-conscious outsider-artist posturing, real gaucheries of technique and presentation still give Wheeler’s works a convincing wild-ass whimsy. Mounting drawings in thrift store frames is a self-conscious poke at art’s highbrow conventions, but Wheeler long ago cleared Lubbock’s thrift stores of truly campy gems, and is now using bland, nearly new gold and silver leafed frames that could pass muster in any suburban dining room, making the pieces weirder and less expectable.
Wheeler’s got a lot of carefully worked pencil in these drawings, which he displays without glass to protect them He doesn’t want it to smear, so what does he do? He sprays the things to death with this awful pebbly, semi-gloss fixative. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was hairspray. It’s a deliciously amateurish touch, something simply not done to serious art, but for Wheeler, it just seems practical. It works; I’m sure that they’re permanent.
Most of the drawings retain Wheeler’s quirky, icon-bashing enthusiasm, but I wish there was more fresh drawing in Now Even Fresher. With acres of paper to fill, Wheeler repeats himself. perhaps he’s reshuffling a personal iconography, but you get tired of seeing the same elements over and over, like another Dairy Queen between Wichita Falls and Amarillo. The missing freshness is confined in a wall of peppy travelogue drawings on sketchbook-sized pages. Anyone might doodle Wheeler’s Truck Stop Still Life on a placemat, but the little American flag in the bud vase is a quirky, stranger-than-fiction detail. If he included more new imagery like this in his big drawings, they would be better.
Wheeler’s got a difficult patch coming up- his work is maturing out of the painful insecurities that made it so appealing early on, but he’s still looking for another, more confident idiom. The crazy-ass pose that once had such touching defensiveness is threatening to become a house style. He’s trying almost too hard to break away from it- a series of truly awful ceramic vases wrapped in the same old imagery, a light-up owl, vulgar butt-plug mints, and altered thrift store paintings provide distractions, but the real contest is in the drawings: What will Wheeler use to fill that all-encompassing brown landscape next?