Posted on 19 February 2014.
Chains of Evince, 2007, acrylic and charcoal on canvas
From the beginning of his career in the early ‘60s, William T. Wiley has kept viewers consistently intrigued and off balance with densely layered paintings and drawings that mix sharp-witted text and images in roughly equal measure. Newslate — the first substantive Wiley exhibition to hit SF since a 2009 career retrospective from the Smithsonian appeared at the Berkeley Art Museum — upholds all that we know about this trail-blazing artist. Among his enduring and most important contributions is the introduction of multiple, conflicting viewpoints in pictures that “argue” with themselves.
What’s different is that the epigrammatic parts – the puns, malapropisms, spoonerisms, jokes and phonetic somersaults that Wiley uses to assault conventional “wizdumb” – now appear in abstract works in which displays of bravura nearly swamp the content. What keeps that from happening is the presence of an equal number of diagrammatic, text-heavy works of the type for which he is best known. Overall, Newslate shows Wiley on a familiar path, mapping the stream-of-consciousness political and philosophical arguments that take place inside his head.
Domestic spying, environmental woes, torture, nuclear fall-out, government lies, war and all manner of delusional thinking top the list of concerns. The newest works, made in the past two years, appear under the guise of Abstract Expressionism. That, you might think, would be an unlikely move for an artist who’s long defined himself in opposition to orthodoxies of any sort. But for Wiley, it’s a canny feint, masterfully executed. Given his legendary skills as a draftsman, that shouldn’t surprise. Yet it does. These medium-scale works favorably echo a host of past masters, from Clifford Still to Robert Rauschenberg, artists who were massively influential when Wiley was a student at SFAI. Wiley, en route to becoming one of the world’s best-known Funk/Conceptual artists whose innovations spilled into Postmodernism, rejected those influences, mocking their claims of moral authority, in particular the idea that any movement could lay claim to universal truth. What enables Wiley to retain absolute currency is that he keeps his focus where it’s always been: on headline news and on serving up an unfiltered view of his own stream of consciousness.
From Trust to Trussed with Flagrants, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 61 1/4 x 69"
Among the works that lean toward pure abstraction, From Trust to Trussed with Flagrants, about NSA spying, stands out. It’s a cross-shaped mass of writhing forms that Op-ishly alludes to the American flag, vastly distorted and laced with classic Wiley-isms. “Lord ½ Mercy. It’s a field of flag runts,” goes one pun. Gagged faces superimposed on a globe next to a cell phone and a key appear in the lower corners of the canvas. If we assess a work of art by the degree to which form and content align, this one — by pitting symbols of hegemonic power (Abstract Expressionism) against symbols of its demise (the NSA spying program) – scores a solid “10”. Wiley achieves nearly the same impact with a gestural work called Pre-Tsunami Abstraction with Migraines, about the Fukushima disaster, an event that carries personal significance for the artist since he grew up near Hanford Site, the nuclear facility in Washington state that supplied plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. This charcoal/acrylic mix contains almost no text, only blowsy waveforms that suggest a ghoul-inhabited topographic map designed by Goya and Soutine. It has the texture of a tapestry.
Detail: From Trust to Trussed
Throughout his career Wiley has carried on debates with himself about art history, and he does so here in several spectacular canvases. In D. E. & the Black Board Boys he begins with a rant about scribble painting and graffiti art, but then goes further, linking “tagging” to more insidious kinds of territory grabs. In separate “windows” a cleric idly watches the slaughter of natives, while Captain Ahab’s Pequod (renamed the Peeq Wad) sails under a banner that reads: “& so we gots to get there and plant our flag!! I captn I! & Flant our Plague. Cause if we don’t ‘they’ will. & we can’t have that…Cause I hear they hates freedumb and eats their kids…Come on men. We’ll save the heldless…”
Another familiar Wiley device is deploying text across canvases made to resemble ancient maps – the kinds that once depicted the Earth as flat with dragons haunting the margins. One of the strongest examples is I’ve Got to Sing to Write the Blues. Using pastel, charcoal and graphite, Wiley fills the canvas with circles, intersecting lines and cryptic diagrams that lead everywhere and nowhere. Into nooks and crannies he inserts puns, epigrams, epithets and creative mash-ups of words that subvert the meanings of old sayings. (“Mess is Lore.”) He also breaks apart or combines words to cognates — words that sound alike but have different meanings. (“You’re not gonna put moron, are you?) As John Yau pointed out in a catalog essay that accompanied the Smithsonian retrospective: Wiley is as much an audio artist as he is a writer or painter. To understand what he says, you must “sound out” syllables and phrases the way a child does when learning to read. This doesn’t always come easily. Many times in this show I found myself “getting” phrases long after I’d read them. Some I never understood.
& So Mute Elation, 2008, watercolor on paper, 12 x 9"
Viewing Wiley’s work requires legwork, too: moving in close to read it, then backing away to measure the meaning of what you’ve read against the entire picture. It demands that we consider an infinite number of viewpoints and embrace contradictions – even nonsense. Unlike the canonical works of high Modernism that ask us to bow, as if before graven images, Wiley’s toss notions of authority out the window. His internal discussions come wrapped in the sardonic humor of bemused elder statesman. (“You can lead a critic to a wall, but you can’t make him think.”) They may make us laugh, but they mostly cast civilization in a harsh light.
The clearest examples can be seen in six small “slate” works, watercolors that look like they were made on a black board. They carry almost no imagery – they consist mostly of words — and they stretch across a wall. The subjects include female genital mutilation, mortality and injustice. The toughest reads: “& So mute elation/Still daughters/Run Weep/Bogs Dark!”
Wiley’s art will not give anyone cause for hope. What it will do is stimulate thought on subjects that seem closed off from discussion. Boundaries upheld by linguistic convention, Wiley shows us, can be dissolved by the simple rearrangement of words on a canvas — a kind of postmodern Scrabble in which meaning, always subject to human connivance, can at least be acknowledged for the slippery thing that it is.
–DAVID M. ROTH
William T. Wiley: “Newslate” @ Hosfelt Gallery through March 15, 2014.