A few weeks ago, our nation's capital tilted noticeably to the left when friends, associates and supporters of the Bay Area's William T. Wiley stormed Washington, D.C. for the opening of What's It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect, now through January 24, 2010 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. A concurrent exhibition of new watercolors and constructions at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery near Dupont Circle meant that fans of Wiley's art had only to hop the Red Line to catch two stellar exhibitions of this important artist's work.
On hand for the festivities were about 30 or so members of the Oakland Museum of California's Art Guild, who were treated to a private tour of the SAAM show by Wiley and his high-school art teacher, James McGrath, who was in town for the occasion. Representing the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, which hosts the show from March 17 to July 18, 2010, was that institution's chief curator and director of programs and collections, Lucinda Barnes. Even Wiley's congresswoman, Lynn Woolsey, was in the audience for the artist's talk and musical performance the night before the show's opening. It's not every artist, noted SAAM's director, Elizabeth Broun, who travels with his own congresswoman.
But then, Wiley is not every artist and never has been. He has always charted his own course, and his artwork has often been the means to make sense of his life's journey between both physical spaces (growing up in Bedford, Indiana; attending high school in Richland, Washington; raising a family in west Marin) and metaphysical ones (the teachings of various Zen masters).
The 88-piece exhibition began in a room off the main galleries with a selection of early works that suggested the influences of artists from Giorgio di Chirico to Bruce Connor to Marcel Duchamp to H.C. Westermann. If you know Wiley's work, the room was like a cocktail party with old friends: There's Mona Lisa Wipe Out from 1967; oh look, it's Ship's Log (1969) from SFMOMA's collection; and hasn't Wizdumb Bridge (1969) aged well?
Mona Lisa Wipe Out (1967)
Those who were not familiar with the artist's early work probably had to fight the urge to scoot through this satellite gallery to get to the main event, and who could blame them? What awaited was a trove of Wiley's most enduring pieces, including watercolors like Lame and Blind in Eden (1969) and Reading the Stains (1971), as well as paintings such as Random Remarks and Digs (1971) and Studio Space (1975). This was the Wiley many visitors were probably most familiar with. Soon we were deep in a world of map-like landscapes ringed with tattered edges; of seemingly endless layers of mottled surfaces percolating through watercolor wash; of the same effect rendered even more dizzyingly in monotone via charcoal and graphite; of storytelling and musings about current events documented directly onto the artworks; and of the cohabitation of disparate imagery that is at once formal and playful, serious and careless, respectful and irreverent. I could look at this work forever.
Studio Space (1975)
Which, of course, is a rather long time to expect an artist to make the same piece, over and over and over. Happily, Wiley moved on, and so did the exhibition, shifting effortlessly between the light touch of a painting-watercolor combo like Nothing Seems Clear (1978), and the meticulously deliberate messiness of Acid Rain (1981). As one moved deeper into the exhibition, jarring lightning bolts and fissures of abstract paint began to pierce the work, as if to pick up where the show's earliest piece, Flag Song (1959) left off.
By the mid-1980s, Wiley's watercolors, once lyrical and trippy, had become so dense that the viewer hardly knew where to look first. But the absence of hierarchy has its advantages. As a viewer, I'm grateful for a work of art that does not tell me what to do, whether it's in the seemingly random collection of objects arranged on the artist's studio floor in a watercolor called Song of the Torturer (1989), or the more recent grid of grinning, frowning and just-plain foolish moons in Meridian Moons Overwhatarewe (2006). I can start where I want, leave for a few minutes or a couple of years, and then dive back in again wherever it feels right. Sounds very Northern Californian, I know, but as a viewer, I'll take that sort of freedom any day over works of art, even abstract ones, with fussy beginnings, middles, and ends.
Meridian Moons Overwhatarewe (2006)
Such wooly-headed thinking on my part may be why I have never completely warmed to the paintings from the 1990s, in which the artist appropriated details from Bosch, Bruegel and even Manet to give voice to issues ranging from the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl to the loss of wild salmon stocks in the Pacific Ocean. As examples of what can be done with acrylic, charcoal and graphite on canvas, the paintings are extraordinary, and the ones on view at SAAM are the best of the best. But these pieces leave little room for interpretation once you learn what they are supposed to be about. As I say, I'm spoiled.
Meanwhile, a couple of subway stops away, at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery, the artist grappled with ancient insults and revenge in the Middle East; the foreclosure of modest family homesteads; mountaintop coal mining; the perils of political geography; and torture.
This last topic was covered in a political-cartoon-of-a-watercolor called Enhanced Techniques of Interrogation (2009). In it, a bulky canvas has been bound and strung up, pierced in places by spikes. An electric pincher sits on the floor, as does a bucket of water with a board in it (get it?). Blood is dripping from the canvas onto the floor and a clipboard leans against the stucco cell wall, as if to document and detail the violent indignities that have been heaped upon the contents of this blank canvas before the victim inside finally spilled the beans. Unless, of course, there's nothing inside the canvas but canvas, in which case the painting is also about the struggles an artist occasionally encounters when trying to wring inspiration from his chosen medium. Once again a course has been charted, the personal collides with the political, and still we cannot look away.
What's It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect runs through January 24, 2010 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. For more information visit americanart.si.edu.