Marcel Artist Spotlight: Wesley Hicks

We love learning about the different practices of the artists in our community. Today we’re sharing an interview our CEO Mae conducted with artist Wesley Hicks. They talk earthenware, collective performance, absurd scents, botany, and aliens.

 Microscope Slides, 2015

Mae Petra-Wong:You work in a vast variety of mediums. What piques my interest is these anthropomorphic structures that allude to nature and go into the technicolor dreamworld. I also saw a lot of sound work, audience participative work, immersive pieces, and journals.

What is the founding motivation of your work? What grounds your work on a daily basis?

Wesley Hicks:

I try to be multi-sensory in most of my pieces. I’m interested in sound, scent, color, texture, and even flavor. There’s a way people walk into a gallery and only use visual perception for the work, but I’m very interested in heightening and expanding that sensory experience.

I really have a material fetish. I fall in love with the materials artwork can be made of. I will learn how to work with one material and then move on to another, and another, and then eventually cycle back through those materials. That’s the reason there are so many materials-- ceramics, paper, fibers, plastics-- things to give texture-- plus many surfaces are painted. And then, these things can make noise, or be scented (my classic moves).

MPW: You studied ceramics at Cal State Long Beach and then you moved to CalArts. I looked at a work with sound experience-- unpack that piece for me.

WH: I studied two majors together at CalArts, Art and Experimental Sound Practices. For me the big thing is that art can be sound. There was something I worked on with the concept of my river rocks. The idea of the project was that I wanted to make some sort of object that really embodies the sound of a river, and perhaps can be performed as a river. I made these river rocks out of clay and they are a kind of rattle. If you shake enough at the same time the sound encompasses you and becomes a white noise, like the sound of a river.

 River Rocks, 2016

I’m not one to keep secrets about techniques because that leads to other people not having art as cool as it can be. To make the rocks I bought many different colors of clay and wedged them together-- because real, earthly material is not uniformly put together. I did a very low fire and then sandblasted them, and then fired them to just under cone 5 for the perfect dry stone like surface.

MPW: Talk to me about the performance itself.

WH: The score calls for 100 people. Each score is a map of a place and the players flow in a group along the map like a river. Depending on where you are on the map you play the rocks differently, like natural geography-- the river may flow faster at places, be calm and slow, or it could be really rocky and turbulent. So we were a huge cluster of people and we were all shaking rocks and as we go across the geography, we change the way we’re shaking the rocks. It was like a big parade. The scores don't tell you exactly what to do, it's more of a game where there are rules and you can do whatever you want as long as you don't break a rule.

MPW: Let’s talk about the experiential work.
WH: I had originally started making musical instruments at Cal State Long Beach. I was making ocarinas-- A kind of clay flute-- and I was also helping Michael Parker work on his show Juicework. At some point he asked me to turn one of his juicers into an instrument, and the Juicerina was born. This evolved into a huge collaboration and my first large set of instruments.

 Juicerina performance at The Getty Center, 2016

They ended up looking like coral and sea creatures and the smaller pieces even look like drug paraphernalia!

While at Long Beach I also got a small grant for about $200 so I bought some random essential oils I was looking to get really earthy, plant-y smells. I wanted my next set of sculptures to collectively smell like a forest. When I started including scent one of the faculty members suggested I apply to CalArts.

MPW: Let’s talk about “Under Scrutiny” for a second. They have an alter-reality, natural sense to them. They’re like earth, but not planet earth. Where do these come from?

WH: A lot of the work in the show was about plants and herbarium collections. I’m a bit of an amateur botanist, I collect some bizarre plants--specifically little tiny orchids, usually no larger than 3 inches in size. The reason I’m interested in these orchids is because they break the mold of expectations of plants.  The flower often look slug-like with slime on them and they can be super over the top. The works are like species of these strange plants you didn’t know about. And it reveals that our ideas of aliens are actually modeled off of things we’ve seen on Earth.

 Mounted Orchids, 2015

MPW: Have you see Planet Earth? The blue planet deep sea episode-those figures were so evocative of what we think are in outer space. And those things that are in our imagination, actually have an origin.

WH: Exactly. When I see the flowers blooming, I get this feeling that goes up my spine. It carries a profoundness to me because it’s just existing on its own terms. These plants are not really on human scale, they are way too small, and we have to squint and look carefully to see them. Some of the flowers are as small as half a millimeter in size. When I see them I realize they are not for us at all, you can't really get that feeling with garden flowers.

MPW: What are you working on now?

WH: I’m full sail with my life being up in chaos. I haven’t had a studio since August. I’ve been working on some non-studio based projects; ones that don't take up tons of space to make. A big part is working on making flavors. They’re very simple-- imagine if you had vanilla extract, but instead of vanilla it’s like a flavor you’ve never had before. Like...California Bay, Black Spruce, or Carnation.

 Scent Bell: Barn, 2016

MPW: How are you seeing these play out and how should someone interact with it?

WH: A lot of the time it’s just me cooking and using these tiny little bottles of flavor and adding them to food. I’ve made about 120 different flavors. I take notes of what’s going on after I add a drop of a flavor to a cup of fizzy water, to make it into a kind of soda just so I can get an idea of what it tastes like. My favorite so far is terrasol, it is like the asphalt after it rains... it has that “after rain” smell. I find it works really well with champagne to make a  kind of mud flavored wine. It’s about finding those combinations that are unexpected and absurd but delightful.

 A selection of the experimental flavors, 2019

MPW: It reminds me a little bit of Harry Potter jelly beans.

WH: It’s definitely a kind of alchemy. It's very much like the magic of the scene when they’re on the train eating the jelly beans. I often have one of those-- if only reality were like that-- moments with this project.

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Learn more about Wesley Hicks by visiting his Marcel page here.

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