Talk about star-studded line-ups. This month, the Bay Area witnesses a confluence of art world supershows, the likes of which we rarely see opening all in the same month. They include a William T. Wiley career retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum; a Morris Graves retrospective at Meridian Gallery; Robert Hudson’s first Bay Area show in nearly 20 years at Patricia Sweetow; and a display of new works by Richard Shaw at Braunstein/Quay.
Each is a major talent deserving serious reappraisal given the distance they’ve traveled. But it’s Wiley’s show that will most likely rise to the top of everyone’s must-see list, and for good reason.
This exhibition of historic and current works which originated at the Smithsonian, takes full measure of the man: an artist whose 50-year output, of drawings, paintings, sculptures, films and performances, is as category-defying as it is massively influential. In an outstanding catalog, filled with excellent reproductions of truly significant works, three writers take aim at the question posed by the show’s title, What’s it All Mean? Their responses add up to the finest assessment of Wiley I’ve seen to date.
Smithsonian curator Joann Moser traces the development of Wiley’s idiosyncratic library of reoccurring motifs, his unique mash-up of historical styles, his revitalization of watercolor, his absorption of Eastern philosophies, his penchant for lampooning the pieties of East Coast formalism and, perhaps, most importantly, his integration of language into everything he does. She discusses these elements in the course of dissecting each piece, providing a riveting tour that makes even Wiley’s most tangled works seem perfectly logical and accessible — even when they are quite the opposite.
Critic and poet John Yau zeros in even more closely on language: specifically, Wiley’s longstanding use of puns, malapropisms, homonyms and spoonerisms to wrap his works in an “archeological” skein of verbal contradictions. “Wiley records in great detail the wild buzz of thoughts haunting him,” Yau writes. “The motivating factor is his desire to map his state of consciousness … It’s as if he is talking to himself, and he has left his diary open to our examination.” Examine the evidence yourself and you’ll see how Wiley, using visual and verbal gymnastics, deflated the modernist notion of "artist as high priest” and replaced it with the decidedly countercultural ideal of “artist as wizard” – creating, in the process, an oeuvre that freely mixes the personal and the political in whatever media happens to be at hand.
Wiley certainly had his detractors. Hilton Kramer dubbed his art “Dude Ranch Dada,” denigrating his work for turning “the comic Western, with its parodies of heroism into a series of esthetic jokes on the relation of art to life, and has done so in a vocabulary that effectively removes the subject from its Eastern ‘intellectual’ associations.” As if deviation from modernist dogma was a crime! Wiley, of course, is having the last laugh, and not just because this show memorializes his achievements. The real measure of his vitality is his influence on artists working today. Wiley brought Dada and Surrealism – the art of the absurd and the unconscious — into the present, and he introduced, through his use of language, a savage wit that has yet to be equaled by any text-slinging artist in any medium.
No less formidable a personage, UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Peter Selz, has organized the legacy of Morris Graves (1910-2001) into a succinct, but potent, show of 52 of the artist’s visionary paintings at Meridian Gallery – on the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth. The term visionary, which is often used to describe outsider art, really extends back much further, to well-known 19th century masters such as Odilon Redon, Albert Pinkham Ryder and William Blake and his disciples. Graves, for his part, carved out a reclusive, Thoreau-like existence in remote regions of the world, including the northern California coast where he culled spiritual insights from the gardens he cultivated. For more than 50 years until his death, Graves reigned as America’s leading mystic painter, rivaled only by his friend and fellow northwesterner Mark Tobey.
Born in Oregon, Graves transcended the limitations around him, both physically and mentally. He left his childhood home early to travel to Japan, and later melded the aesthetics of the Northwest school with the styles of Asia and European modernism. His images of birds, trees, flowers and animals range from the tormented to the sublime, and are characterized by a decidedly surrealist twist – modified and made original by his forays into Zen Buddhism and the theories of Carl Jung. As Graves wrote more than half a century ago, “The artists of Asia have a spiritually realized form within which we can detect the essence of man’s Being and Purpose, and from which we can draw clues to guide our journey from partial consciousness to full consciousness.”
Graves, of course, wasn’t the first American artist who thought he could paint his way to ultimate reality, but he is one of the few who attempted to do so without resorting to all-out abstraction. This show includes definitive paintings and drawings from each major period of Graves’ career, concluding with the flower- dominated still lifes that he painted until the end of his life. When people asked why Graves chose to paint flowers, Graves said that if he could tackle flowers without producing empty clichés then he would have reached the heights scaled only by Mondrian and Manet. Overall, it’s hard to argue with the results; Graves had the ability to reduce things to their essences and then magnify those essences. In that transformation he illuminated the sublime, creating what he called “visions of the inner eye.” [Listen to a conversation about Morris Graves between Peter Selz, Lawrence Fong (University of Oregon Museum of Art), and Robert Yarber (Morris Graves Foundation).]
Robert Hudson, Wiley’s close friend and an ally in the Funk movement that overtook Bay Area art in the ‘60s, demonstrates that despite an almost two-decade absence from the local scene, he can still thrill us. Of all the artists in his immediate orbit – a group that also included William Allan, Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner and George Herms – Hudson realized early on that his subject was perception; and no matter what form his work takes, whether sculpture, painting, ceramics or assemblage, Hudson always juggles form, weight, color and texture in ways that make viewers question the nature of what they see.
Yet looking at his work has never been an overly cerebral task. Like his cohorts, Hudson pulls from Dada, Surrealism and Pop and throws in lots of humor which springs from his wild – yet completely poetic – juxtaposition of geometric shapes and found objects, oftentimes painted in bright primary colors. The results are sculptures that read like three-dimensional paintings. Some are actually kinetic; some aren’t (but look like they are). Whatever the case, Hudson’s sculptures look as if they could spring into action with the flip of a switch.
The content of Hudson’s work has always been difficult to nail down. In light of current eco-art trends, one might think that Hudson’s incorporation of industrial detritus might indicate an environmental agenda. But in point of fact, Hudson was working this way long before the word ecology entered the popular vocabulary. Likewise, his penchant for shiny metallic surfaces, which might suggest a possible Finish Fetish affinity, is not exactly the stuff of Wiley-like eco-activism, either. Further evidence of Hudson’s interest in the asetheticization of things mechanical comes in a new series of drawings composed of concentric circles and atomic symbols — some of which were studies for a 16-story installation of porcelain enamel panels at the corner of Hawthorne Lane and Howard Sts. in San Francisco. They appear to bear only a glancing relationship to his 3-D works – but confounding viewer expectations has never been one of Hudson’s worries. It’s one of his hallmarks.
Lastly, we come to Richard Shaw, the undisputed king of trompe l’oeil ceramic sculpture. In the ‘60s he earned his bona fides studying with many of the Bay Area’s most finest artists — Hudson at the SF Art Institute and Wiley at UC Davis to name just two — and quickly joined their ranks. Using the temperamental material of glazed porcelain, Shaw makes true-to-life facsimiles of everyday objects: paint cans, playing cards, books, cigar boxes, pencils, letters, cheese rounds, branches and logs, saucers, tools, beer bottles, object-laden figures and table-top set pieces that appear to be built from studio detritus – but are really clever fakes, made “real” by the application of photo-offset decals that replicate product labels and illusionistic space. Legions of viewers (and even a few critics) have viewed Shaw’s works and come away wondering if they’ve just discovered an unseen side of Joseph Cornell.
The sensation? Bill Berkson, writing in American Craft, said: “The eye is disturbed and tricked into a state of hyperalertness so that you look harder to perceive what’s actually there, all the while flailing about mentally for an exact memory of the familiar thing or set of things it’s meant to represent.”
Shaw’s apparent mission, Berkson implied, was to render the entire world in clay; and while the artist may not have achieved that goal, he’s never left any doubt about whether he’s capable of pulling off. As Shaw told Berkson, “This stuff comes from looking in sketchbooks and combining. You build the nomenclature of your act and then you start eating off your own things, combining the things you love.”
–DAVID M. ROTH
Cover image: William Wiley: (Detail) Your Own Blush and Flood 1982, watercolor on paper, 22 x 30 inches
William T. Wiley: What’s it all Mean? @ Berkeley Art Museum through July 18, 2010
The Visionary Art of Morris Graves @ Meridian Gallery through May 15, 2010
Robert Hudson: Sculpture & Drawing @ Patricia Sweetow through May 15, 2010
Richard Shaw: New Works @ Braunstein/Quay through April 17, 2010