William T. Wiley: Grate As He Ever Was

The “real world” always finds a way to seep into William T. Wiley's large, fantastical paintings. Even the title of Wiley's current San Francisco exhibit, “& So… May Cuss Grate Again?,” is a play on Donald Trump's blustering slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Wordplay, humor, and political commentary have anchored Wiley's art for more than 40 years, exemplified by his 1970 work calledArt Official Peace Plan, which – topped by a peace sign made of things found in nature – was Wiley's protest against America's involvement in Vietnam.

The art on display at Hosfelt Gallery, most of it from the past six years, shows that Wiley has lost neither his convictions nor his verve to create labyrinthine tapestries of acrylic, charcoal, water color, and ink. InUnobjective Abstraction in Leonardo's Basement with Blue Corners, he scribbles everything from “Pre-Occupied Oakland” and “Tear Gas Protecting People” (words that adjoin shapes of teardrops) to “Lets All Sing My Country Is It Thee?” Scores of simple faces are semi-hidden in the canvas' cascade of lines and etchings. Measuring 5-by-5 feet,Unobjective Abstraction in Leonardo's Basement with Blue Cornersis a kind of primal scream that's meant to bereadas much as seen.

Few other painters of Wiley's stature — someone with a half-century-long arc of major awards and major exhibitions, including a Smithsonian retrospective in 2009 — incorporate the voice as much (and as minutely) as Wiley does. As an accompaniment to his Smithsonian exhibit, the museumreleased a podcastseries where Wileysings and strums the guitar to such ditties as “Don't Be Afraid of the Dork” and “Out Me Take.” Like Wiley's paintings, the tunes are irreverent and funny, sometimes darkly so. (One song lampoons Walt Disney's afterlife.) To listen to them is to inhabit the work of a Renaissance Man who has a bit of Pete Seeger and a bit of Lou Reed in him.But while Wiley's painting ability hasn't diminished as he's aged (he's 78), his physical voice has suffered. After doctors treated him fornon-Hodgkin's lymphoma on his thyroid, it's down to barely more than a whisper.

“It happened after the treatment,” Wiley tellsSF Weekly, sounding like a faint Marlon Brando in The Godfather.”But I can still play the harmonica. That helps. And we're looking into seeing where I can get some help with my voice, because I really miss singing.”

Wiley's health challenges helped prompt his recent move to Novatofrom his longtime home and studio elsewhere in Marin County, where he did some of his best work, including a 2007-08 pinball machine with celestial images that he called Punball: Only One Earth.

“I was there for 47 years,” Wiley says. “I lived with my first family, and separated from my wife. It's kind of a complicated story. But the house wasn't really adequate for aged folks. There are a lot of steps. I needed a better place.”

Wherever he is, Wiley will still do works like Abstraction with Torture Chamber, a 6-foot canvas at Hosfelt Gallery that is a mass of fiery red hues and swirls, partnered with a small quadrant that pictures an actual chamber. The chamber's shackles and ceiling hooks, and the wording that's visible upon closer inspection (“So Red Abstraction with torture chamber, The Enhanced Rendition”) are a sharp counterpoint to the red clouds that inhabit 98 percent of the painting. Made in 2009, Abstraction with Torture Chamber seems to reference everything from Dante's Inferno to the Bush Administration's policy of “extraordinary rendition,” in which the CIA captured suspected terrorists in other countries and brought them to “third party” nations, where many were tortured.

Wiley has said he likes to pose questions more than provide answers. He says he's not a political artist and that politics is simply “a part of the landscape — the physical and mental landscape — that inspires me. [My art is about] things that make me happy, and things that make me terrified, and things that make me cringe. Somehow, I want to reflect that in the work totally. It's looking at the whole landscape of our lives.”

That whole landscape — transported to dense canvases, with their layers of swirls, doodles, scribbles, dialogues and ramblings, some of which are worded by proxy characters like Goat and Raven — can be overwhelming for those looking for easily accessible art. Wiley's work is the antithesis of Pop Art. As Susan Larsen, a then-curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, said of Wiley's art in 1989: “I think his work is often difficult for audiences, because he requires that you participate in the process, which is very personal at times. His ruminations are intense. And in order to get into the work, you have to spend time — and it's not a 30-second shot. His narrative quality is more like that of a poem than an essay — you have to work your way through it and then assimilate it emotionally.”

Wiley advises art-goers to treat his work the way excavators treat sites of potential treasure. “I think it's there if you want to dig into it,” he says of the pleasure in looking at his art. “It's like an archeological site that you can take at face value, because visually the impact should work regardless. I've shown in foreign countries where English is not the primary vehicle of understanding and still get a response. So I think [my art] should work with or without the words. People should be able to get a sense of what it's about.”

But the words do matter. At Hosfelt Gallery, the piece called Tracking Other Images with Comments and Drones can be appreciated from a short distance as an abstract canvas of odd shapes and patterns. But get close and you see, besides a drone and penguins and a glass of water in flames, the words “I don't run with the crowd. No what I'm saying?” as well as this play on a familiar political phrase: “His evolution may get televised.”

Wiley says he inherited his infatuation with words and his sense of humor from his dad, who spent a lot of his life as a construction worker. Wiley was raised in Indiana, Texas, and Washington. “It's something I grew up with,” Wiley says. “My father used to tease me with words. I think I've always been responsive to double meanings. For example, we were traveling a lot when I was young. We'd pass through a town and go by a graveyard and my dad would say, 'Do you know how many people are dead in there?' And I'd say, 'No.' And he'd say, 'All of them.' Those kinds of trick question and answers, and double meanings and double references, have always intrigued me and delighted me.”

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