by Mark Van Proyen
In 1985, I asked Wally Hedrick about his view of the Northern California Funk movement, particularly the roles that William T. Wiley and Robert Hudson played. “Those guys,” he replied, “are about as funky as Albert Einstein!” Sure enough, their work has never had anything to do with the abject body that was the primary preoccupation of many other artists associated with the movement. Nor can we say that the Congolese source of the term (lu-fuki, referring to “body odor caused by hard work”) brings us any closer to understanding what they were doing. Wiley’s core pursuit has always been highlighting the discrepancies between the experience of reality and the unconsciously internalized maps of it that we take for granted. No doubt, if Wiley were less inclined toward making an elaborate mockery of the pretensions advanced by the Minimalist cult of absolute presence, Jacques Derrida might well have written a maddingly complex essay about the ways Wiley’s work embodied his post-structuralist theories about the slippages, ruptures and inversions that often occur between signs and what they portend to signify. But where would be the fun in that?
The affirmative answer resides in Monumental, the first posthumous exhibition of Wiley’s work since he died on April 21. It exceeds all expectations. It contains 13 paintings, most of which are large, spanning the years 1987 to 2008, plus four small watercolors, but it omits prints and three-dimensional works. In no way is it a complete retrospective like those Wiley had at SFMOMA in 1981 or at the Berkeley Art Museum in 2009, but it will certainly suffice until the next full career survey comes along. One reason is that almost any example of Wiley’s work reads like a self-contained retrospective, chock-full of polymorphic modalities that traverse multiple gamuts. In any given painting, we might see a fluctuating emphasis between graphic and schematic organizations of space, resting on a precarious balance struck between imaginary cartography and fanciful description. And if that weren’t enough, the very same works also feature a plethora of written notations, many taking the form of puns and phonetic spellings, some more poetic than others, but all playfully reflecting on the quagmire of signification. In other words, looking at one of Wiley’s paintings can be likened to climbing a stairmaster designed by M.C. Escher, only with more surprises and hidden delights planted along the convoluted path. The payoff comes in the form of a generous and sweet-spirited reminder that somehow everything will be okay, unlike the fate of the Tower of Babel that some might presume to be the historical archetype that lurks in the deep shadows of Wiley’s longstanding projects.
In Monumental, six paintings on canvas measuring more than ten feet wide and six to seven feet tall dominate the gallery. Each is richly saturated in bright, thick acrylic paint applied in a devil-may-care gestural fashion, appearing as a kind of chromatic froth, within which a wide variety of other pictorial and linguistic incidents emerge. For Wiley, working with acrylic had many advantages. It could look like luminescent watercolor when applied on unprimed canvas, while in a more congealed state, it facilitated a frothy impasto. Since acrylic doesn’t damage canvas, there is no need to apply primer, and that is what enabled Wiley’s notational additions in pastel, charcoal and graphite. Take, for example, Who is Not a Slave (1987), a work that comes off as a swirling cascade of brilliant colors. An adjacent part of this painting takes the form of a greyscale work on paper, leading one to see it as a legend or predella that annotates the larger panel. It might well be, but if so, it is so oblique that it leaves
one guessing. Leviathan II in the Steppes (1991), a similarly sized work, has an aqua-blue picture space subdivided by a bold crescent — an unmistakable reference to the flags of several Muslim countries, including Iraq, with which the US was at war when Wiley made the painting. It also contains a small vignette of a statue of Lenin being pulled off a pedestal, echoing the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Both paintings hark to a trio of works that Wiley executed in 1961-62 titled Columbus Re-Routed (one of which is in the collection of the Berkeley Art Museum). In these, we see him first breaking away from the influence of his teacher, Frank Lobdell, to create works that bespoke an early interest in psycho-geographic cartography and visual/verbal puns.
Thomas Albright pointed out that Wiley was influenced by an exhibition of Rene Magritte’s work at the Berkeley Art Museum in or around 1965, and it is easy to see how that influence has morphed and persisted throughout his career, including those parts presented in Monumental. The objective, however, isn’t to keep a scorecard of influences; instead, it’s to ascertain how those influences extend and expand through subsequent artistic transformations. On this point, there are many more things that could and should be said; however, stating them here would require a much longer telling than is practical. The
critical thing to recognize is that Wiley has always performed what the literary theorist Gregory Ulmer has called Op writing1. He overlays visual and verbal representational regimes to create an array of philosophical moiré effects, which undermine and displace the hidebound presumptions of everyday metaphors. When we see Wiley’s work in light of this kind of intellectual intoxication, it points to an artistic mindset much more sophisticated than what we usually glean from most conceptual art. Plus, looking at Wiley’s paintings results in a lot more fun, reminding us that we should concede nothing to the idea that having fun means giving in to the enemy, whoever that might be.
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William T. Wiley: “Monumental” @ Hosfelt Gallery through October 6, 2021.
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.
1. Gregory Ulmer, “Op Writing: Derrida’s Solicitation of Theoria,” in Mark Krupnick (ed.) Displacement: Derrida and After (Indiana University Press, 1983).