William T. Wiley
Dude Ascending The Stare Case
By Robin Jay and John D. Adams
Wit is a tricky tool for an artist to use. For William T. Wiley, pieces often reveal his response to fresh disasters aired on the nightly news. His practice is to scatter ironic humor and profound beauty with serious commentary, usually on current events.
For more than 65 years, Wiley has masterfully, elaborately, evocatively, and earnestly made art. Often his work is an amalgamation of many disciplines. One genre could never contain Wiley’s messages on social injustice and political issues, most of them involving war and environmental concerns. He has produced: paintings, drawings, assemblage pieces, sculptures, watercolors, tapestries, installations, prints, book collaborations, films and videos, even a Wiley-designed working pinball machine.
In 2009-2010 the Smithsonian American Art Museum recognized Wiley’s lifetime of work with a retrospective – What’s It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect. About Wiley, The Smithsonian stated: “Art, politics, war, global warming, foolishness, ambition, hypocrisy, and irony are summoned by Wiley’s fertile imagination and recorded in the personal vocabulary of symbols, puns and images that fill his objects. His wit and sense of the absurd make his art accessible to all with multiple layers of meaning revealed through careful examination.”
TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES
If there is one sacred truth to a Wiley art piece, it is this: Integrity. “I often think that when I’m working on a piece,” said Wiley. “It’s about everything – what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling, what I’m hearing, what I’m seeing, what’s scaring me, what’s making me happy, what’s making me laugh, what’s making me cry, what’s making me wonder and question…” We were delighted to sit down with this American master of provocative art and verbal play to discuss a few of his works, his feelings about contemporary society, and his homage to a beloved early teacher.
As we studied Wiley’s Monkey See, the artist spoke passionately. “It’s all about how we treat animals and each other. Somebody once said, ‘We do terrible things to animals but we do worse things to human beings,’ Torture has long been a thing that concerns me, we torture people, torture each other. And my monkey in the piece has several devices hooked up to torture him. He’s also confined in the stocks. If you crank that device, it sends an electric current through, it’s an actual torturing device.”
As with most of Wiley’s strongest work, there is also a strong counterpoint. In this case, a beautiful landscape behind his monkey “to give us some relief.”
DUDE DEFENDING THE STARE CASE
With Dude Defending the Stare Case, Wiley takes a respite from social messages with his version of a purely joyful homage to Duchamp. “In the last couple of years, I’ve been working on canvas just with black and white. And I wanted to work abstractly, so that I wouldn’t have to be thinking up a story… I was playing with a blob of black and a blob of white paint… I’d just smear it with the palette knife in one direction or another, and suddenly I saw a motion in it that reminded me of Duchamp’s Nude
Descending the Staircase. And I thought: ‘that reminds me of Duchamp’s work… And you know, if you mess with words, words will mess with you. So I suddenly heard ‘dude defending the staircase’ which is pretty humorous and just didn’t have to be about anything but pure pleasure.”
POST MODERN LANDSCAPE & THE PRESSURE OF JUST US
This complex painting, with all its layers and commentary, suggests the meshes of law and justice, lawlessness and injustice, with which individuals and most of the planet must contend. Along with the layers of images, icons, symbols, and found illustrations, Wiley has mentioned James McGrath, his high school art teacher, who was a tremendous early influence on Wiley and, remarkably, several other prominent artists. About his friend, Wiley said: “He opened us up to what art could be. He himself is an artist who does work that combines many forms – words and poetry, along with images. His concern for the environment is a full calliope of consciousness.”
TOMORROW & TOMORROW & TOMORROW
Now 78 years old, Wiley shows no signs of slowing. “The things that have worried me and upset me and caused me great distress, and also great humor, are still very much with us. What we’re doing to the planet and each other is pretty horrendous.” As his work continues, Wiley takes a moment to reflect. “I have been able to practice the artwork that I’ve wanted to do and I’ve found support through people who are willing to help me do that. That’s a great achievement. I feel lucky to have been honored and noticed.”