Spotlight on Barry Wheeler

Barry Wheeler Headshot

By: Grace Fennell

Barry Brian Wheeler has always seen things a bit differently. His background in IT gives him a different perspective than many other artists, and he comes from a more cognitive, computerized mindset that sees colors as digital information. In his newest piece entitled “digit-eyes” (which he premiers at the Indie Grits festival on April 16th), he explores the natural perception of color to the human eye. The piece revolves around a deceptively simple-looking box that appears to have an array of colors when looking at it straight-on but, if one moves to either side, you can see that it’s a trick of the eye. It’s actually a combination of just four colors that create the full spectrum of shades that appear from head-on. This concept is just one of many Wheeler has come up with through his background in computers. This latest project was inspired by thinking about “how [to] break an image apart and show people that there’s only 4 colors in a given image: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black,” according to the artist. His hope is to break through our surface understanding of images and demonstrate a more conceptual and computerized way of looking.

Wheeler was not always an artist. He got his undergraduate degree from the University of South Carolina in 1997 and went on to work in chemistry, then law, and then IT. Never quite settling, Wheeler eventually decided to go back to USC and get a master’s degree in Media Arts. This is where he found a way to combine all the skills he’d learned and make them into art. A good example of the style he has developed can be seen in a piece where he takes 2 photos of sunflowers, one real and one fake, and gradually peels away colors with each passing frame until it becomes difficult to tell the difference between which is the real sunflower and which is the fake one. Wheeler says that he wants “each one of these pieces to challenge your idea of what an image is, or what a digital image is. That’s what I’m trying to do, make you think about ‘what is this thing I’m looking at?’ It’s not just a photograph anymore. it’s also data.”

When Wheeler heard the art theme of this year’s Indie Grits was “future perfect,” he knew he wanted to join in. He was friends with managing director Seth Gadsden, the chief curator, and was excited about the creative possibilities.

“Seth is a really talented artist so I knew that if he was running it he was going to come up with something really, really interesting,” Wheeler says. The theme is supposed to be showing an ideal future in terms of urban design, advanced technologies, and machines. Wheeler took that idea and decided to think about the future of information and its relationship to data. The future of images is obviously digital, and he’s trying to show us what they really look like, underneath. Wheeler say he would like to continue to explore this concept in the future with more of his art. In part, this interest stems from the fact that his own turn towards art later in his career fundamentally changed his perspective as well. “I stopped seeing stuff in black and white. And I stopped thinking only about process,” he says. “You see things in a different way when you think about art. Back then I could look at a sunset and say oh it’s just refraction. When you stop looking at things for just the process and just take it in, then you see things in a better way. So now I don’t look at the sunset and say ‘oh, that’s just refraction, the blues are being refracted by the oxygen bonds,’ now I say, ‘that’s beautiful, that sunset.’ It doesn’t matter how it works.”

Wheeler’s piece can be found at the Nickelodeon Theatre as part of Indie Grit’s “Future Perfect” art opening on Thursday, April 16th from 6-9 pm. Artists are exhibited throughout the 1500 and 1600 blocks of Main Street.

In addition, Jasper will be giving a tour of the “Future Perfect” artists that will start at 6:45pm that night at the Nickelodeon.

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