Figure of Speech | Trevor Wheatley
INTERVIEW: Chais Mingo | PHOTOGRAPHY: Jake Sherman
Dialogue | Issue 02 | p.101
Both provoking and unreal, Trevor Wheatley has drawn audiences in with his incredibly surreal typographic sculptures that explore contemporary culture. Working as a team alongside Cosmo Dean whom helps create and conceptualize the pieces, and Jake Sherman who stunningly captures the results on camera, allowing the work to be shared online for those who aren’t lucky enough to stumble upon the works in their obscure natural environments.
Trevor’s roots are in graffiti so it comes as little surprise that he prefers to present his work in the public realm. However for his latest work the canvas is not usually the urban landscape. Rather the group utilizes contemporary slang or recognizable corporate logos, and takes them out of their familiar urban setting into the empty and natural wilderness. The large and at times intricate creations offer a striking juxtaposition between urban and rural, past and present, and nature and technology. This natural environment allows the viewers to appreciate the work on their own terms and creates a dialogue outside the narrow confines of a gallery.
It’s hard not to be envious of the group of friends and collaborators. Working together on concepts and designs in their Toronto based studio and then venturing into the woods or off to a foreign country with the ultimate goal of re-assembling and documenting their work. Adventure is a key part of the process and the group often sets out without any particular destination. The crew and their work are often at the mercy of Mother Nature, yet the team embraces the uncertainty of working in the outdoors and allows the documentation to occur naturally. The setting is often as important as the sculpture as it allows for new interactions between the environment and the artwork.
For their latest project the crew took a trip to California to set up a new installation in the distinctive desert landscape of Joshua Tree National Park. We caught up with Trevor, Cosmo, Jake on the road to hear more about their process and inspiration.
What was the catalyst for working predominantly with sculptures?
T: When I graduated from art school I started working on film sets. The bigger films had huge budgets and invested heavily in their standing sets. After a few shoot days the sets were disassembled and thrown out. I’d go into the dumpsters and fill my trunk every evening. It was an inexpensive way to start making sculptures, I’d make text pieces that were comprised of many materials from different films or tv series. Cosmo had ten years of building experience, so when the work and the installation rigs became more complex we began to work together.
Please explain the creation process of yourself and your team.
T: Generally Cosmo and I will bounce ideas off one another until we run out of time and both have to make some creative concessions. No two projects have ever been the same, so each one presents new conceptual and material issues. We source materials from a wide range of places, and more recently have been working with different fabricators. Including water cutters, laser cutters, steal welders, even ice sculptors. Once the sculpture is made we go on a location scout with Jake Sherman and plan where the work will live and try to predict the look it will have. Only so much planning can be done, as weather often dictates the results of the installation and shoot days.
Your work often features current slang and lingo usually found only in pop culture, the Internet and casual conversation. Why do feel it’s necessary to give permanence and physical form to ephemeral language?
C: We don’t view the language we choose as being inherently ephemeral. Definitely it has contemporary relevance as slang, but much of the text we’ve done also has an alternate definition- if not a classical dictionary definition, at least a contrasting definition that isn’t necessarily how it’s predominantly used in pop culture. We use the slang to make it relatable and accessible, but appreciate the duality in the language as it allows us to point at bigger societal issues, often evident in the more ‘ephermal’ definitions of the words we tend towards.
How do you think your work will be viewed 10 years into the future?
T: We’ve been talking a great deal about permanence and it's importance to our practice moving forward. Over a short period we’ve traveled extensively and made a portfolio that is now acting as a catalyst to get projects that will be permanent. We feel strongly that you have to earn that permanence, and recently have been getting offers to create more timeless sculptures. In the summer we will be working on a few permanent pieces, it will be interesting to see how that will affect the work.
Do you think it matters or are you more concerned with the "here and now?"
C: Our hope is to create a sustainable working art practice for ourselves, so remaining current and relevant will always be a part of that. Although we do think a lot about more permanent and timeless sculptures we plan to make, our current focus is on evolving quickly and presenting a unique reflection of society as it’s happening.
Your work lends itself easily to branding and commercial interests. How do you balance the often conflicting aims of art and commerce?
C: We’ve come to see the commercial work as something of a blessing, and it makes it feel like less of a compromise and more of an accommodation of our personal practices. Definitely we have to make some concessions, but the aesthetic and tactile elements of our practice are something we enjoy very much, so doing work that doesn’t necessarily align with our personal conceptual considerations isn’t entirely un-enjoyable.
What happens to your work after the installations are completed?
T: Initially we would leave the work where it was installed. When we went back to document it as it aged and eroded we worried about the environmental implications the sculptures were creating. More recently we take the work back to the studio, where we have been hoarding text in many different typefaces, sizes, styles, and materials. Down the road we plan on using them for a text cage piece that will float in the sky.
Your work often finds you in rural areas or trekking through the wilderness, sometimes in the cold of Canadian winters. What are some of your favorite or most memorable installations whether good or bad?
J: I think that one of the fondest memories we mutually share would be the snitch install. It wasn’t necessarily the most extreme to date, but it has the glory of being one of the first projects we did that was an absolute battle to capture. The scale of the work was huge, and it was finished quality, so the physical act of carrying and placing the sculpture was a feat in itself, and then we got caught deep in the woods in a pretty bad winter storm. We were racing against time and ended up trekking out in the dark of night. The whole thing was just so all encompassing that when it was over the sense of accomplishment was really euphoric. Second would probably be real talk. We had a whole gang of friends with us for that one, over the course of three days. It was just a leisurely pleasure. Almost the opposite actually.
How do you go about location scouting? Have you run into issues with property owners?
J: We all go out hiking together, with Jake being the final say in what the actual frame will be. Usually we have a vague idea of the landscape were looking for, but we like to make a day of it, weighing our options and figuring out what’s realistic in terms of time and transport. Occasionally we don’t have the luxury of time, and we just set out with the work on our backs and hope for the best. Often times this garners some of the strongest results, and definitely can be an exciting way to do things. Our motto with property owners or local authority tends to be a combination of beg for forgiveness rather then permission, and pleading ignorance. We aren’t particularly invasive, and we’re happy to oblige anyone who doesn’t want us around by simply leaving politely, so thus far we’ve been fortunate to not have had any major altercations. Our experience is that most people are happy to let you use their space when you explain the purpose and intention, and most are even eager to accommodate and help however they can.
Can you give us the story behind your concept for this latest series in the Californian desert?
T: Each landscape presents different possibilities, it’s less about the desert and more about shooting in as many interesting locations as possible. The sculptures interact with different environments in varying ways and it’s exciting for us to open the work up to different possibilities. If we were constantly shooting locally the work would be in danger of becoming redundant, so travelling has become an important part of our practice. Generally we don’t pick the text until we arrive on location, and everything is made on site. Travelling dictates the content, the look, the scale, and the final imagery produced.
You can find the full print version of this interview in issue 02 of our magazine | shop now