Joseph Wheelwright

Lincoln, Massachusetts

The DeCordova 2003 Annual Exhibition, DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park

Joseph Wheelwright, Rockababy Moon, 2003. Granite, 49 x 80 x 51 in. Photo: Mark Wilson.

For Joseph Wheelwright, stones speak. They have personalities. They have names. Some imply gender, age, and ethnicity. For much of his career, this Boston sculptor has been carving stone heads—nothing you would mistake for Houdon, understand. Quirky, idiosyncratic heads, man-in-the-moon heads, pocked and cratered heads. Wheelwright’s forte is an out-of-the box mode of creating, a lack of inhibition that results in work of considerable drollery and occasional grotesquerie, all in evidence at this year-long exhibition, which opened last June at DeCordova.

Wheelwright enthusiasts tend to acquire a single Wheelwright “moon” and place it in a landscape, where such stones quietly exude the spirit of nature. On the museum’s sculpture terrace, 10 heads, most of them new, interact in a cumulatively compelling way. They have a presence akin to that of the Easter Island heads, yet Wheelwright’s fantasies are alternatively too human or too bizarre to be reverenced. Even stylistically, no two are much alike.

In 1980, not long out of Rhode Island School of Design, Wheelwright made a series of drawings of the phases of the moon. He then embarked on a project to produce in bronze one small moon sculpture a year; the first 22 are on display in a DeCordova gallery. These palm-sized objects attest to the artist’s talent for caprice, enhanced by witty titles. Some, like Long Moon and Flat Smiley Moon could come straight out of nursery-rhyme books; others, like Ho Chi Moon are pure fun and pun.

Steve Hollinger, Butterfly, 2000. Mixed media, responds to sunlight, 13 x 9 x 8 in. Photo: Peter R. Harris.

His earliest large moon, Resting Moon (1994) was commissioned as a memorial and is located on a private school campus. Wheelwright found a boat-shaped wedge of rock on the grounds and, using the narrow edge as the profile, carved on it a serene, introspective face. Such natural wedges continue to inspire his eccentric moon visages. Only one moon rests on the museum’s terrace, Rockababy Moon, sleeping enigmatically. A pagan power emanates from it, as well as from the two oldest works—Listening Stone, commissioned in 1995 by DeCordova, and the 2000 Self-Portrait Stone.

Wheelwright can never be accused of repeating himself, but sometimes his whimsies lead him astray. His recent Stone with Random Features can be read variously as a rabbit, a lizard with a human nose for a tail, or a fish with a human ear/gill, the sum total very low on redeeming aesthetic qualities. Indoors, he ruins a nice piece of gneiss by carving and painting one blue eye atop it à la Monsters Inc. and drilling a red mouth-orifice elsewhere. There’s much to savor in Wheelwright’s more restrained fantasies, such as the Rock Climber who finds a foothold in an open mouth, the tiny Men on the Moon scattered over a long-suffering moon-face, and The Expedition, in which tiny mountaineers march over a head/summit.

Wheelwright is not the first artist to turn a tree upside down and see that it looks like a figure with roots/hair sprouting from its head. His names for these Druidic apparitions are evocative, and it may be that such works serve the purpose of introducing the very youngest viewers to the possibilities of an unfettered imagination. Yet perhaps such exercises are beneath the attention of a serious artist.

The journey, not the destination, is the mantra for this year’s DeCordova Annual. An emphasis on inventive process rather than artifact gives us an artist who knits objects from industrial materials like lead and eight-inch fiberglass batting (David Cole), another who bounces a film projection off a water-filled globe (Bruce Bemis), a welder who works exclusively with 12-inch steel spikes (John Bisbee), a woman whose medium is super-sharpened pencil stubs (Jennifer Maestre), a simplifier who reduces everything (currently, vehicles) to spherical shape (Lars-Erik Fisk), and a builder of freaky little light-activated objects that straddle the gap between art and science (Steve Hollinger).

Kudos for variety, but once the viewer grasps the process, for most of these objects and installations there’s little to linger over. Analyzing Fisk’s risible ball/Volkswagen to see what he left out is amusing—it is equipped with such details as dome light, speedometer, windshield wipers, and ash tray, but the tail light is proximate to the door handle and the driver would have to be a six-year-old. Most engaging are Hollinger’s minutely crafted machines. His tiny bat skeleton flies, his blown-glass heart pumps blue blood, his contrived Jellyfish, whose parts are all synthetic, swims with thoroughly convincing motion.