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William T. Wiley @ Hosfelt

Goat & Raven Chewin' the Corner in Whack and Blight, 2011, Acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 61 x 73 1/2"
 
Anyone looking for insight into William T. Wiley need only read the title of his current show, & So…May Cuss Grate Again?  To utter the words is to experience the meltdown of last year’s signature piece of political doublespeak — Donald Trump’s.  Clever conflations like these, of sound-alike, opposite-meaning words, have always been the driving force behind Wiley’s “wiz dumb” disabling apparatus.  They’ve made him not just the high priest of wordplay, but also one of America’s most relevant living artists –now more so than ever on account of how the world has devolved in exactly the way Wiley forecast in the late 1960s, when war, racial strife, and environmental issues were shaping his worldview and rearranging the political landscape.  Phenomenal draftsmanship is the other key component of Wiley’s appeal and his stature.  His exquisitely detailed drawings, influenced by Duchamp, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, have long elicited comparisons to Old Masters. Today, at 78, Wiley is one.  His singular achievement was (and continues to be) placing the act of looking and reading on equal footing.  That is, making the sound of language the means by which we engage with his imagery, an experience that demands a back-and-forth two-step, shifting between across-the-room views and up-close, micro-magnified reading. 
 
Detail: Rejected War Monument, 2010, watercolor, ink, paper

May Cuss Grate Again?, his second exhibition at the gallery, affirms these attributes, but it also shows Wiley tilting the emphasis toward images and away from words.  It’s not that the artist isn’t obsessively recording his thoughts and doubts about mankind (he is); or that his alter egos, Goat and Raven, aren’t arguing cantankerously about art (they are); or that he’s stopped flinging barbs at climate deniers, dictators, corporate criminals, polluters, warmongers and human rights abusers (he hasn’t); it’s that those barbs, while occasionally sharp, and sometimes brilliantly so, no longer seem as pointed as they once were.  What hasn’t changed is Wiley’s basic iconography.  His ink-and-watercolor drawings, 15 of which are on view, retain all of the elements Wiley watchers have come to know well: cartoon-y faces, omnipresent eyes that speak of surveillance, winged hourglasses that speak of mortality, targets, musical symbols, hand tools and the always-present dunce cap, Wiley’s avatar for himself: a genius masquerading as a an aw-shucks country bumpkin.  From drawings like these, which come larded with homespun koans, aphorisms, puns, neologisms and spoonerisms, it’s easy to see how the Dude Ranch Dada appellation arose and why it stuck. 

The real news coming out of this show is that Wiley seems to have also gone all in for abstract painting, something he’s done before, but not at the scale seen here. Background: After earning an MFA in 1962 from California College of the Arts (now SFAI) and performing the requisite ablutions to the gods of Abstract Expressionism, Wiley renounced it, taking up the style drawing and painting he’s practiced ever since.  Somewhere along the line, he allowed abstraction to creep back into the work, but he’s always kept it on a short leash, using it more for grounding recognizable images than for delivering anything that could be described as content.  Over the years, and largely out of public view, he’s also made intensely detailed abstract drawings whose snaky, gnarled lines rival Bruce Conner’s mandala drawings in their complexity.  Excellent examples were on view in a show that closed in December at the b. sakata garo gallery in Sacramento.  
 
Wishing the Well, Well, 2015 watercolor, ink, on paper, 35 x 30"

Two monumental canvases at the gallery’s entryway reveal a similar allover approach.  In these the lines are markedly looser than in the drawings, but the feel is the same: of being adrift in a convoluted, unnavigable topography.  Three other large-scale paintings — & So….Abstracting the Raven and the Crow; Facing Corvus Constellation; and Goat & Raven Chewin’ the Corner in Whack and Blight — make the drift of Wiley’s thinking (influenced, as always, by NPR News) clearer.  In these, the most striking features are ghoulish faces and angry, roiling waves, rendered in black and white. Wiley applies the acrylic paint with a palette knife, but the texture is sooty, as if the canvases had been exposed to a smokestack and rolled in snow.  In certain areas, the paint appears to have been delicately and selectively

squeegeed, creating melted, moiré-like patterns. To call these works dark and turbulent would be a vast understatement; they read as molten graveyards of grimacing monsters, reminiscent of those seen in Goya, Bosch, Blake, Munch and Picasso’s Guernica.  I hesitate to invoke the A-word, but here there’s little choice: these are grisly, apocalyptic visions.  

Could it be that after more than five decades of art making in which he’s presented critical views in a light, jokey tone, and in bright, bold colors, Wiley’s realized that satire dressed in friendly images no longer carries the weight it once did?  Or that maybe homespun humor, however fiendish, isn’t an adequate response to global insanity? 
 
Tracking Other Images with Comments and Drones, a/c, charcoal, canvas, 61 x 67"
 
Here it’s worth noting that early in his career, Wiley made a two-sided sculpture painted with the words “What’s it all Mean?” He later made them the title of his 2009 Smithsonian retrospective, and they remain an apt reminder of his basic quest, which is to understand things that don’t make sense.  It continues.  What appears to have changed or at least shifted is Wiley’s orientation, the method by which he translates those impulses into art.  Now, instead of describing the world’s predicaments in verbal and visual riddles as he has in the past, Wiley, in his abstract works, takes the approach of a frustrated teacher, who, having failed a recalcitrant student, says, out of frustration: “Let me draw you a picture.”  
 
It’s rare when abstraction communicates more directly than representational art, but that is what is happening in Make Cuss Great Again? Looking at these works, in particular the 10 large canvases (one of which depicts a torture chamber), I couldn’t help but think of Leonard Cohen’s line, “I’ve seen the future, brother, and it is murder.”  Wiley, I imagine, is entertaining similar thoughts.  
–DAVID M. ROTH
 
William T. Wiley: “& So…May Cuss Great Again?” @ Hosfelt Gallery through January 30, 2016. 
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