by David M. Roth
Few American visual artists can rightly be called soothsayers. Among those that can, William T. Wiley, 81, stands apart. From the mid-1960s to the present, his paintings and sculptures have laid bare the lies and deceptions behind war, environmental catastrophes, corporate malfeasance, political misdeeds, hyperbolic punditry and, yes, even the sometimes-opaque machinations of the art world. In these regards, his current show, Sculpture, Eyes Wear Tug Odd!, breaks no new ground. The most celebrated aspects of his output – the cryptic maps, the (“wizdumb”) dunce caps, the mock chalkboards, the verbal jousting between the artist’s alter egos (Goat and Raven), and the exquisitely detailed watercolors packed with inventive wordplay — are all on display in a tightly focused, luxuriously arrayed museum-quality exhibition whose title you’ll need to say out loud to understand.
In that there’s no news, either. Linguistic challenges in the form of goofball puns, spoonerisms, malapropisms, fractured cognates and phonetic somersaults have always been a defining feature of Wiley’s art, and the one characteristic that makes his work unique, demanding a level of viewer engagement that, to the best of my knowledge, has no precedent or analog. Another longstanding Wiley trademark is his seamless mix of painting and drawing, particularly in monumentally scaled canvases, where the sheer profusion of plastic activity — painted and pencil-drawn, abstract and representational — can leave you feeling as if you’ve embarked on an labyrinthine treasure hunt.
What is new are the connections being drawn between Wiley’s 2-D work and his sculpture, the latter having gotten short shrift on account of the artist’s reliance on non-traditional art materials like cardboard, tape, Styrofoam and found objects thought to be unstable, and therefore difficult to conserve. Why this should remain so is a mystery since Duchamp crossed that barrier a century ago. Whatever. If any resistance remains, Todd Hosfelt, the gallerist and organizer of this exhibition, hopes to sweep it away by making clear the thematic connections between the two sides of Wiley’s practice. Spanning the years 1965 to 2018, the exhibition presents clusters of 2- and 3-D works that display overlapping imagery and/or strong conceptual links. Among the latter are several major works including Boo Dah BBQ (1982), a wood cutout of self-immolating Buddha; and Punball: Only One Earth (2008), a working pinball machine covered in the artist’s iconography. If these and other pieces look familiar from having appeared in the artist’s 2009 Smithsonian retrospective that touched down at BAMPFA, they are outnumbered by other works of similar ilk and stature that have, for whatever reason, remained out of circulation.
One not-so-obvious work that immediately captured my attention was First Stage of Infinity. A text piece, it was originally painted on a silk handkerchief in 1971, but after it disintegrated, Wiley remade it in 2008 as a watercolor, accompanied by the original figure-8-shaped infinity symbol, built of wood. For anyone seeking insight into Wiley’s mindset, the text is essential reading. One part details a high school play that dissolves into a cloud of dust after a flimsy stage collapses. The other describes the artist’s hometown of Richland, Wash., the site of the Hanover Nuclear Reservation, where the plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was manufactured. It was, Wiley relates, a source of pride. “Our school emblem was the A-bomb blast. The team’s name was the bombers,” he writes matter-of-factly. The town, he
adds in footnote, “is one of the most toxic sites on Earth.” What he doesn’t say is that his father who worked there as a construction foreman died of cancer. Yet for decades, despite mounting evidence, the government denied any such dangers. The experience forever colored Wiley’s worldview, as did that of his high school art teacher, James McGrath, who instilled in Wiley and his close friends, William Allan and Robert Hudson, a profound reverence for the environment. In the years since, a tug-of-war between competing value systems – that of bare-knuckle capitalism and the Native American ethos advanced by McGrath – has fueled Wiley’s art. As you tour the show, you can see him visibly wrestling with these forces in stream-of-consciousness conversations with himself.
A particularly strong example is The Furor Over the Truth (2005), a piece that pairs a tape-wrapped FedEx box with a detailed two-part drawing. Both contain caricatures that combine the facial features of Hitler, Nixon and Pinocchio, along with a lot of text, every bit of which you’ll want read to decode the cross-historical references made to the post-9/11 era when U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan caused so much consternation. The box portion (above), in the context of this exhibition, is of particular interest as it shows Wiley worrying out loud about the salability of such objects. (“If only he would cast me in bronze…people might…find me worthy of support.”). These vexations appear alongside other classic hand-drawn Wiley-isms: a winged hourglass and a dripping globe with an eye at the center: symbols of impending doom that appear repeatedly in this show and throughout Wiley’s art.
Another superb pairing from 2007 is titled The Hearings. This flimsy tape-and-wood homage to Deborah Butterfield, replete with dangling, text-packed appendages, stands before a watercolor-and-ink drawing showing the same object in a studio, littered with all of the elements contained in the sculpture, plus a few dunce caps. (In both style and substance, it may remind you of H.C. Westermann.) Here again, the text is key. It reads: “So a turn knee gone soulless…how do you feel about torch sure? Yes sin a tour we will prepare a report retaining our position.” Speak these words aloud and the subject becomes clear: the use of torture and the dubious justifications for it offered by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in his testimony before the U.S. Senate.
Wiley also takes on critics. East Coast commentators once characterized his output and that of his peers as regionalism, “Dude ranch Dada” being the most famous putdown, penned by Hilton Kramer. Wiley hit back with paintings and drawings that parodied the dominant orthodoxies of the time: Abstract Expressionism, Pop and Minimalism. The latter he addresses in a diptych called The So-Called Minimalists & the Pure Hum Drums (2001). It consists of two color field paintings that read as chalkboards, each inscribed with handwritten commentary flanked at the sides by bows loaded with plastic bottles instead of arrows. They carry hand-drawn labels for a fictional beverage called “Wiley’s Butter Beans,” a likely indicator of the artist’s thoughts on the matter.
Elsewhere, a pair of sculptures show Wiley engaged again with that subject, this time more directly in works that echo similar efforts made around the same time by Robert Hudson. One, from 1967, is a slab of Plexiglas disks attached to an axe that resembles a giant pizza cutter. The other is nearly severed tree limb, reinforced on one side by what looks to be an aluminum bedrail. If so, that would explain the title, Modern Sculpture with Weakness (1968). On a nearby wall, between these two objects, stands an equally enigmatic drawing called Curvey Urinehives (1967), the title a play on Currier and Ives, the 19th century print company known for distributing low-cost Americana. Wiley’s take on the genre, if that’s what it is, shows a skater on a pond flanked at the right by a dizzying concatenation of abstract shapes, patterns and a few recognizable objects that, in combination, look like the aftermath of an avalanche. Made on the eve of the momentous 1968 election in which Hubert Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon, this bravura piece of draftsmanship contains the following text, wrapped around the perimeter: “And for those who grave unknowingly a limp salute amigos. end of the year reek-a-pit-u-lated with re-prints from the Farmer’s Almanaic (sic) all Welcome with a weary glance off the hip into the forward thrust we go.”
What might the nature of such a thrust be? Near the top of the drawing there’s a not-so-subtle clue: “Warparty 68.” The words tell you all you need to know about the state of America in 1968. However for Wiley, as with so many people, the Vietnam War didn’t end with the fall of Saigon in April 1975. The fallout continued, evidenced here by a a group of works titled Agent Orange, named for the chemical defoliant used in Vietnam that was subsequently linked to birth defects and a host of other maladies. One is 91 x 128-inch map painting from 1983 showing a balloon-shaped toxic cloud hovering over alandscape rendered in pencil that, had it appeared in the Middle Ages, probably would have contained warnings about dragons lurking at the margins; the others are guitar-shaped sculptures. Five such objects, made between 1983 and 2006, line a wall and sport jack-‘o-lantern-like grins or grimaces. Four were originally created to make woodblock prints, and were later expanded into assemblages. Were they to become animate and produce music, the soundtrack would be Megadeth, Black Sabbath or something equally demonic.
In all, there are 40 pieces in the show, all of them worthy of sustained contemplation and discussion. I visited the exhibition twice, and each time I left the gallery feeling as if my head were about to explode, so dense is the imagery and text contained in these works. It borders on horror vacui. Given the madness engulfing us, that approach seems right. Wiley’s art, always extraordinarily prescient, now feels more relevant than ever.
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William T. Wiley: “Sculpture, Eyes, Wear Tug Odd!” @ Hosfelt Gallery through May 4, 2019.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.