Michael Wheelden's new body of work, Painted Desert, on view through Feb. 25 at the Earl & Birdie Taylor Branch Library (4275 Cass St. in Pacific Beach), is characterized by a certain vernacular or indigenous Southern California architecture seen through the eyes of the artist. The often banal and nondescript houses and pseudo-desert landscaping Wheelden paints are enhanced by the artist's formal treatment of the subject matter (light, color, composition) and the intersecting planes of doors, windows and sloping roof lines this brand of modest architecture offers as a backdrop.
Wheelden's dry, colorful scumbling of the paint is infused with light and pastel colors that turn ordinary homes and landscapes into an almost precise recording of another endless summer day. Roofs shimmer under the midday sun, the ground's moisture is wicked away and the only refuge from the heat is within the cool blackened windows of an empty house.
Often, Wheelden's paintings are shaped and sliced into planes of interlocking canvasses and odd rectilinear forms. The painting's wood frame will cut through a work mimicking a house's flattened and frontal appearance. It's an effective tool the artist uses, perhaps a bit gimmicky at times, but when done well it's as seamless and provocative as some of Robert Irwin's scrims devised to transform a space or a field of Eucalyptus trees.But Wheelden's at his best when he focuses in on mundane sagebrush, sprawling cacti or a rock garden. It is then that you can see the artist's brush and interest in his painting and subjects come alive. The wispy brushwork and colliding colors of cool greens and violets against burnt oranges and lemon yellows of a house's framework, for example, is where his true joy in painting seems to lie.