Trevor Wheatley has a way of turning language on its head. His recent public pieces—gigantic typography installations that poke fun at popular culture—have earned him a devoted Instagram following, attention from bigtime design magazines, corporate partnerships with brands like Stussy, and high-profile commissions (including a super-secret piece for the first WAYHOME festival outside of Toronto, Ontario). It proves the young multimedia artist is making work that speaks to people—both literally and figuratively.
As a young kid, Wheatley gravitated toward graffiti. Though it was mainly because of how accessible it was, the hobby got him into art school, where his focus shifted to studio work. According to Wheatley, he fits the typical cliché of graff-kid-turned-studio-artist. But unlike some of his peers, he still embraces his graffiti roots: “A lot of graffiti writers who now make studio work don’t acknowledge their past. They think that narrative is something that will bring them down,” he told us. Now, he spends most of his time in an industrial building in downtown Toronto that he shares with his collaborator Cosmo Dean, working on public commissions and contemporary work for galleries. “It’s a 3,000-square-foot dungeon, and I love it.”
His public installations started with a commercial edge: “The idea was to critique the place of advertising in the public sphere and construct a hypothetical space where commercial symbols might be neutralized as corporate signifiers.” To Wheatley, the ultimate neutralizing factor is nature, something he learned while travelling in Cuba. “The projects we shot there were all about branding and how its power can be stripped or inverted by creating non-commissioned ads.” By taking commercial logos far away from their typical habitat (i.e. urban spaces), he encouraged viewers to reflect on their relationship with the text. For example, a gigantic Nike logo made of wood scraps, suspended in a barren countryside elicits a completely different emotion than the swoosh on a city billboard. “Cities have a lot of visual noise—my work in visually competitive spaces wouldn’t create the same interruption that it does in nature,” he notes. Ironically, it was after seeing this work that brands like Stussy started commissioning Wheatley to create his own interpretations of their logos.
His recent personal projects—sculptures that read things like SQUAD, BLESS, DIME and FRESH—are a cheeky ode to pop culture and our Urban Dictionary era. In addition to being visually stunning and intricate, there’s still a sense of playful contrast: “The pieces juxtapose the urban with the natural through a physical realization of slang, trend and the re-contextualization of popular language. I generally have some sense of how the piece will react to the location.” For instance, carving FRESH out of ice on a beach was an obvious way to access various levels of meaning. Others, like BLESS suspended over waterfall or SQUAD hanging among fall leaves, were left to the observer to ponder. Interestingly, how the installations decompose is almost of equal importance to Wheatley. “It’s been fascinating to see how the materials age and degrade and become part of the landscape over time.” Wheatley is quick to note that he only leaves behind materials that won’t harm the environment—he’s had an intense respect for nature ever since spending childhood summers at a camp near Sudbury.
Working in the wilderness gives Wheatley a way to control the viewer’s interpretation, but his shoots also rely on nature’s unpredictability. Even with months of planning, his team (which usually consists of Dean and a few other collaborators) is always prepared to welcome the unexpected—like inquisitive horses in the countryside or a torrential downpour. “Weather never dictates the date of a shoot,” he explains. In fact, bad weather can actually make for an even more interesting outcome. When his team shot SNITCH, they were hoping for a calm winter day, but instead got a gusty blizzard. Wheatley ended up wading knee-deep in a stream and almost freezing to death. “The photos came out icy and violent but better than we could ever have hoped.” It’s a testament to his adventurous spirit, and willingness to get a little dirty (or cold and wet), for his work.
Despite a strong Instagram presence, Wheatley is cautious about social media—especially the pressure to cater to your fans. “I know what kind of work will be received well on social media, so I try not to let that affect what I do too much.” It’s not surprising then, that he and his partner Cosmo Dean are planning to venture in a completely different direction for an upcoming show this fall—“it won’t be text-based,” he reveals. But blazing new trails comes naturally to the artist, and his fearless attitude keeps fans excited for whatever’s coming next: “As Cosmo and I like to say whenever we agree on an idea: ‘let’s get it.’”