About the work
Jess Willa Wheaton’s work centers on the suture. There is a history to her endeavor: from the moment images were produced with a claim to index the real and the intention to sell an idea of truth, beauty, justice, luxury, youth, love, desire, etc., there were artists protesting their seamlessness, their coherence, even their fundamental honesty. The breakdown of language in Dadaist collage, especially in Zurich and Paris before the Second World War, and its partial reassembly by John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch in Berlin in response to the rise of fascism, are two of its more radical episodes. Heartfield and Hoch felt an urgency to disrupt the truth claims made by photography in the hands of mass advertisers, state-run news organizations, and in propaganda campaigns by the Nazi party and its avatars, but they were not after a complete disintegration of language into non-sense. They sought instead to demonstrate the constitutive vulnerability of the image’s rhetoric. They tore open the first glossy images and re-sutured them with delirious fury.
When Wheaton rends an image, she does so in order to will its dream into appearance. When she brings an image into contact with another, their touch suggests the structure of each one’s fantasy. Unlike the Berlin Dada collages, her work is precisely balanced; it does not re-constitute an image’s meaning for the viewer. This is the point Leo Steinberg made of Robert Rauschenberg’s collages as well: Rauschenberg used the canvas as a horizontal, depthless surface on which to place fragments of the world in order to reorganize them. He produced new sense, but he also demonstrated that meaning relies on context, adjacency, the frame, and the order it structures. He made the recognition of an image’s mutability central to the work of art. Wheaton returns to the problem of the natural world—that of water and landscape and the animal—but without relinquishing Rauschenberg’s commitment to representing the operational processes by which culture is produced.
Though her attention to each fragment’s texture, viscosity, and density is meticulous, what really interests Wheaton is the transition between them. Her medium is the space each image is forced to inhabit together with another in sense. The stable selling power of an image can be broken by association with another, this Heartfield and Hoch also knew, but Wheaton slices an image where it is most vulnerable to being undone, at the site where its own dreams are closest to the surface. She pierces images where their claim to the indexical register is thinnest, finding each place by touch.
Wheaton’s process, that of sifting through paper archives compiled from disparate sources that are often produced decades apart, is intimate. These handmade collages could not have been made before the touch-screen appeared as a portal to Internet technology, because they are of the body in response to an expanse of disembodied digital space that forms the horizon of imagination for many. The work is inescapably the result of her fingers sliding across paper, searching for its edges, uncovering the image below. This process leaves a residue in the structure of each collage, or the sense that the watcher is falling in and out of frames as they watch the places Wheaton has touched and cut and sutured. Her collages are flat, but as they have no ground in time and space, they are also endless, dizzying. Their formal equilibrium resolved, they are somehow also never still.
Like any open surface, Wheaton’s collages are polyvalent. They are a meditation on climate change, on whiteness, on collective delusion and collective grief, on polymorphous love. To name these things directly in relation to specific works, however, threatens to return them to some state of conceptual resolution. Resolution would void Wheaton’s attention to the suture, it would obstruct the work’s attempt to demonstrate that even the most coherent kinds of images, advertising images, can be made to betray themselves or can be made to dream. Instead, I have dreamed with them, trying to maintain the concise irreverence with which they were constructed.