Grand Funk

In search of the Wiley doodler

One quick look at the huge mixed-media paintings of artist William T. Wiley -- now on display in "Recent and Relevant" at Scottsdale's Riva Yares Gallery -- and it becomes crystal clear that Wiley is a man who must never sleep. That's probably because, for 40 years, this consummate artist has been too busy incorporating every random image, idea and pun that pops into his churning mind into a painting, drawing or sculpture.

And if the artist's most recent paintings are any reflection of his mental inventory, Wiley's brain must be unmercifully crammed with warped but wildly entertaining thoughts about, among other things, unfathomable Zen koans, unappreciative art critics, reworked nursery rhymes and man's determination to destroy his environment.

Along with ceramic sculptor Robert Arneson, William Wiley has long been considered one of the progenitors of the Northern California funk art movement of the '60s (a label the artist has admitted he'd sometimes like to shed). Centered in the Bay Area, birthplace of the Beats in the '50s, funk was the first American breakaway movement to lampoon the seriousness with which artists and the art world had come to regard themselves. Master nose-thumbers, Wiley and Arneson led the renegade pack.

Shooting from the quip: William Wiley's Predator Naturale  --  Or Sneakers in the Target Zone.
Shooting from the quip: William Wiley's Predator Naturale -- Or Sneakers in the Target Zone.

Infused with the nonsensical, urinal-as-art spirit of Marcel Duchamp's Dadaism -- and sometimes just plain rude irreverence -- funk art in any medium could be humorous, raucous and absurd. It was sophisticated comic relief for an art world tired of the id-crushing angst of abstract expressionism and, later, the befuddling pretentiousness of minimalism. According to art critic Peter Plagens, Wiley and his Bay Area funk cohorts consciously turned their backs on art world elitism, good taste and creative pain, producing "a kind of matured hippie art more concerned with magic, good friends, good times, and simple land, water and air."

But, for all of funk's drollness and occasional anarchic goofiness, sober subject matter would frequently slink in surreptitiously.

By all appearances, William Wiley -- christened the "metaphysical funk monk" by Art News' John Perreault in 1967 -- hasn't lost his polemicist touch. The artist-cum-art historical icon continues dredging the world around him for inspiration, using whatever he can scavenge to create his art.

"I'm just a landscape painter," explained the artist during an interview for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. "I look out the window and I see what's going on, and I paint it. While I'm painting it, I also write thoughts about what I see going on out there."

And what weird and wonderful thoughts they can be. A lifelong student of Eastern religious philosophy, history, geopolitics, pop culture and everything in between, Wiley's creations teem with discordant images, recurrent symbols, engaging word play and intentional misspellings referencing art itself.

Philosophically, little has changed in Wiley's work over the years. Though the artist's inescapable wit and irreverence still drive the work, nowadays there's a much darker edge to the signature playfulness with which he's peppered his most recent, jam-packed canvases. Maybe it's because the view from his window has changed so dramatically -- and not necessarily for the better.

While Wiley's conceptual core might remain inviolate, the style of his paintings has evolved considerably. Gone are the early underground-comics-inspired characters the artist created and used as alter egos: the dunce-capped Mr. Unnatural; Buddy and Body, the Dharma Twins; Lout Sue; Zenry; and Sir Rot (a pun on Georges Seurat, the French postimpressionist painter). That's not to say that a stray Disney character, devil or Barneyesque dinosaur won't make frequent guest appearances.

Wiley's 1999 paintings, 16 of which appear in "Recent and Relevant," bear little resemblance to his gauzy, relatively spare watercolor, pencil and ink studio interiors of the late '80s -- or to the painter's less satisfying, art-history-based takeoffs of the mid-'90s, which bore such titles as Manet Can't Paint the Ocean Like Eye Can (1995) and Lust -- After Bosch -- After Tailhook (1994).

In fact, the artist seems to have revamped his style. In his earlier canvases, Wiley pulls back squiggly stretches of multicolored abstraction, like skin and muscle being ripped from bone, to reveal a skeleton of roiling, pencil-drawn images, designs and writings that swarm over his canvases like crazed insects.

In "Recent and Relevant," much of the older abstraction has disappeared. What's left is often obsessively crafted, transparent layers of maplike designs, small paintings, mysterious symbols and scrawled thoughts that completely fill the canvas -- like unselfconscious entries from the pages of an artist's sketchbook. Drawings and text both serve as visual routes through the rough-and-jumble ruminations of Wiley's free-associating subconscious.

For example, current American political events appear to be the real stars in Drowning Horse Frightened by Colors. Into this frenetic canvas littered with balls of colored paint, Wiley has crammed a variety of unrelated images in a boiling moat identified with the words "real fake ocean lake" and a quote ascribed to Sir Herbert Reed: "Only those in the service of nature can be trusted with technology." A terrified horse, nostrils flaring, barely keeps its head above water in a whirlpool. A man's foot breaks the eddying surface, while drifting past are a top hat and sweaty world globe, emblazoned with Rodney King's immortal utterance, "Can't we all just get along?"

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