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Visual Arts

Grand Funk

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...
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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.

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?"

Even presidential persecutor Kenneth Starr is dragged into the watery morass -- a cross-eyed starfish clings to a signpost bearing the words "Ken Star His Leaky Staff."

In Predator Naturale -- Or Sneakers in the Target Zone, a blunderbuss-wielding hunter, labeled "Big Game Time Hunter," takes aim at some unseen prey amid a sea of crudely drawn floating targets and inscriptions in Latin. Grinning monsters thread their way through the canvas. Beneath the hunter, the artist has scribbled, "No. I just don't think it's a very important one; Kill it anyway . . those things breed like critics, especially the unimportant ones."

The artist also throws art historical imagery into his agitated mix. In Weighing of the Heart, an eagle-headed Egyptian god straight from some ancient temple frieze grabs the arm of an Egyptian female. Next to the figures, Wiley has scrawled, "Easy on the arm, birdster" (or could it be "bardster?"). In the distance, Anubis, the fox-headed Egyptian god who oversees the weighing of hearts, is sizing up a dead black disk on a scale. Across the bottom of the canvas, there's a red, white and blue bar code, and a whistling Mickey Mouse drives a roadster toward the foot of the bird-god; a thought balloon over Mickey's head announces "American Eye Con."

Now and then, Wiley creates a focal point in his otherwise untamed compositions. A fiery red devil, a refugee from some medieval painting, fiddles center stage in Evolution -- the Eclipse and the Devil in Kanvas. With eyes bulging and tail pointing to a cartoon girl, Satan levitates above a white picket fence, vying for attention with a cyclone-borne house, a pot of gold, a dinosaur and spinning globes. A tangle of penciled graffiti in the background holds its own against these images: "The Land of cyclone and psych loan," "But I thought the devil was in the details," "The Good Book and the Bad Book . . which do you want to read???" and "So . . the moon . . we own it, right?" But one central passage connects the dots between the painting's title and a number of its puzzling images: "Looks to me like the devil's in (me) kanvas and he's playing into our hands . . I'll never [leave] home again."

William Wiley's come a long way from the stripped-down abstract expressionism he abandoned early in his career for what one writer has snidely referred to as "dude ranch Dada." The paintings in "Recent and Relevant," much too deliciously complicated to consume in one sitting, yoke (or maybe even yolk) stream of consciousness to the artist's perpetual, encyclopedic interest in the universe and the folly of human nature. One of the first artists to actually use writing in his art, Wiley continues to morph with the times, while paying wry but oddly respectful homage to the past. At the very least, he's raised doodled dreams to the level of high art.

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