PRINT December 1970

Meditating at Fort Prank

If you are really living right and you consider what’s left, if you’ve really found the Pure way to live—can you make it without comparisons? They used to come in like fresh supplies-ideas about who was messing the place up. And with each defeat of the Un-Pure our purity was that much more. It was getting so clean it was hard to breathe. But you could always blame that on the altitude if you needed a reason.
—William T. Wiley, Dwelling in the Pure and Infinite, watercolor, 1970

SOME ARTISTS GO THEIR OWN WAY, deliberately eluding strict art historical and critical categories of “major” or “minor” art, avoiding the consistency of one medium or form. William T. Wiley does intricate, romantic watercolors about imaginary locales and situations, or about his allusive sculptures and constructions, which range from padlocked “information” boxes to fragile-looking combinations of rope, rocks, rubber, metal piping, shells, bamboo poles, twigs, and other ephemeral or cast-off materials. He has also done two movies in collaboration with filmmaker Robert Nelson, The Great Blondino, 1967, and Man’s Nature, 1970. William Allan, a friend of Wiley’s since their high school days together in eastern Washington, is equally versatile and restless in his selection of media. He had made cement sculptures, box constructions, watercolors, and some movies prior to 1969, then he began to concentrate on larger paintings and films. He teaches film at Sacramento State College; Wiley is an instructor at the University of California, Davis.

The San Francisco Bay Area, where both men live and work, has traditionally afforded its artists a blissful isolation in terms of living conditions, alongside of a generally inactive market for their art. But this lack of widespread public attention has encouraged rather than defeated the free play of individual fantasy (labeled “Funk Art” when exhibited en masse). The isolation also seems to foster parodistic personal cross-references based on friendly association between groups of artists who are in constant contact with each other. What results is a surprising diversity in the look and structure of their work, in spite of some common intentions.

The preoccupation with exclusively formal concerns and the focus on the conditions particular to the making of painting, sculpture, or other media that has distinguished American art during the past few decades, especially in New York, is not as urgent an interest for many Bay Area artists. The productive process and the mental activity occurring in the studio or in daily life takes precedence, substituting a consciously humanistic content and realistic style for abstract ones, though with full awareness of (and remark upon) particular formal problems of art-making. Some of the titles used by Wiley and Allan are clues to the candid, ironic attitude they adopt towards this choice of egocentric subject matter and eccentrically realistic style and form: Half a Dam, Shadow Repair for the Western Man, Self Improvement (Allan’s); Initial Breakthrough, Self-Centered Support, Pure Strain, Meditating at Fort Prank, Keel Over, Outrageous Extension Piece (Wiley’s). Both artists are known to west coast viewers but the very privacy of their work, and its reliance on intimate or insular biography has tended to keep its exposure and appreciation local. It is characterized by a nostalgic, wry type of yarn-spinning pioneer humor, which may magnify the smallest events of ordinary life into mildly magical or Surreal metaphors. Unraveling the complex of oblique, sometimes disjunctive symbolism from the temporary, even tacky materials, and punnish, diaristic inscriptions or narratives which are the informational basis of this work, is like picking your way through one of the chaotic (but meticulously drawn) dumps that Wiley is fond of sketching. Every object and subject is bound to have a tale or a joke behind it, but even the quantity of prose captions or commentaries which are the integral companions to Wiley’s paintings and other projects, or to Allan’s witty, enigmatic pictures and films, are still apt to leave you baffled. As Wiley put it more appropriately in the title of a watercolor sent to New York’s Whitney Annual last year: Painter Baffles in Excess in California! It was a picture of a fantastic mechanical rigging, feverishly at work painting a canvas attached to the wall, while “baffles” cluttered the studio floor.

During high school, Wiley was already attracted to work by Surrealist artists like de Chirico, Magritte, and Dali. Allan, who was in the same art class as Wiley and San Francisco sculptor Robert Hudson, was directed by their teacher Phil McCracken (and by another instructor, an Acoma Indian, Jim McGrath) to a particularly sensitive relationship with nature; he has since spent a lot of time learning about woods survival and fishing. Wiley’s pieces—often forlorn, vulnerable looking, and gently didactic demonstrations—are made up almost haphazardly, it seems, from available materials. They underscore his view of himself as the amazed inventor/navigator, nevertheless oddly detached from the things he constructs on his imaginative or creative trips. A log raft, entitled Keel Over was “built from materials at hand” at the (Madison) Wisconsin Art Center during an October exhibition of some older work. It was meant to be a relaxation seat from which to look at the show. Its ropes and riggings swung over a deck of slate, where, according to Wiley, “you can chart in chalk your course and if it gets too hard, wipe it away with your hand just like a magic wand.” Here the artist is casting himself (and even his audience) as a kind of Huck Finn innocent, so that he won’t be too “blinded” by all the numerous daily miracles out of which his art materializes, in a mysteriously automatic manner.

Simply living the repetition of Nature has been the most influential teacher for Allan. His stated interest in how people spend their time leads him to film situations which reveal the artist as the knower-of-nature (a kind of specialized esthetic fisherman)! He will test the viewers’ sense of time in relation to Nature or art (with a touch of gleeful perversity) through their responses to panoramic, detailed landscape paintings, foils for the strangely inserted props from his personal experience.

I wish I could have known earlier that you have all the time you’ll ever need right up to the day you die.
—Wiley, untitled watercolor, June 1970

For Wiley, man’s nature is spelled out in the endless litter of details and reflections that confront him in and out of the studio and classroom. In the caption to a study which illustrates a construction named Wizdumb Bridge (1969)—two log stumps covered in gauze and supporting a span of canvas binding, with an infinity loop and a tiny pyramid suspended at the center of this cloth strip—he says: “I’m a maze of information about reflections, mirrored in opposites.” Continuing, in the inscription beneath another watercolor study for a sculpture called Eight Ball on the Wall: “. . .The thing you start to notice is the repetition sometimes on purpose sometimes just backed up out of wonder and desperation. Then like with an eight ball you don’t know if you are in front—or in back—on top—Under—or just behind it. . . .” The piece is a canvas triangle tacked on the wall, X’d and slit at its center, with a forked branch propped against it, braced, in turn, by a rock on the floor. His repertory of imagery is full of interchangeable parts and acknowledged references to work by friends—sources like H. C. Westermann, Allan, Hudson, and others. The symbology is an intricate one, based on certain repeated forms and objects.

The pyramid/triangle is recast into triangular sails, wedges, tripod-braces, or the spaces between crossing axes and slingshot branches (Eight Ball on the Wall, Keel Over, Ship’s Log, Tool and Die Maker—Homage to Marcel Duchamp, Shark’s Dream). This last named painting, done in 1968, shows a gray pyramid oozing blood, with a cartoon balloon floating over it, containing a reversed reflection of the same sculpture—a work of art dreaming about itself rather diabolically! If asked why he uses this pyramid image so frequently, one explanation you might receive is that it recalls a sign the artist once saw at the door of a chiropractor’s office which consisted of the words “God, Chiropractor, Health” joined into a triangle by wavy lines. (The chiropractor had straightened him out by relieving him of a problem with frequent headaches.) Such signs are heeded often, and the preoccupation with the activity of sifting and balancing some kind of new, or even rarified order out of the clutter of available material is an important one in his work (Tide Thermometer and Progress, watercolor, 1970; The Balance is Not so Far From the Good Old Daze, watercolor, 1970). The eight ball (a fortune-telling toy made of a black ball with a small triangular piece floating inside, which shows up answers on the faces of the triangle through a glass window, when shaken or rolled around) is fused into the image of the ball-and-chain. It even comes out in the form of political objects like the work called Movement to Black Ball Violence, Homage to Martin Luther King (1968), a piece in progress, composed of black friction tape whose layers are successively applied by viewers whenever it is exhibited. The infinity loop absorbs the “eight” from the eight ball, and brings in the metaphysical level of allusion that figures into many of the words and stories (Wizdumb Bridge, watercolor and construction, 1969; For Freaks and Store Keepers, watercolor, 1969).

Reflections, mirrors, mazes—paradoxical combinations, things with double meanings and punned reversals, undoubtedly fascinate Wiley, so that many of the images can be seen as several different things simultaneously. The slingshot appears as a peace symbol made out of a Y-shaped branch, or out of lead pipes and rubber, an expression of the dichotomy between the strains of violence and peace which polarize America now—the peace emblem made ironic through its new form, a child’s toy, but also a potentially deadly weapon (Art Official Peace Plan, construction, 1970; Re-Enforced Peace Treaty, watercolor, 1970). Forked props, baffles, pulleys, riggings, buoys and weights often counter or support antlers, pipes, masts, and logs—the contraptions of leverage and balance that rely on both the certain and volatile forces of nature for their adjustments (gravity, flow of water and wind, etc.). The weights put stress on the disparate, flimsy materials which are the armature and substance of the pieces (Pure Strain, sculpture, 1970; Tide Thermometer and Progress, watercolor, 1970). Bridges and impossibly X-channeled streams (crossed axis forms, as well as the cutting implement, the axe, are punned surrogates for these) are material spans or gaps which are juxtaposed with the thematic disjunctions that Allan seems to delight in, to an even greater degree than Wiley. Signs, flags and graffiti—anonymous messages and evocative scribblings—are also common to Wiley’s work (Pure Artist’s Tattoo/No Signs to be Read, watercolor, 1970). The grid-frame, appearing from time to time in watercolors and sculptures (Un-Natural Extension, To Any Man’s Mind, watercolor, 1969; Blind Project, sculpture, 1969), seems to represent the paradigm of regular structure, the stabilizer of the temporary contraptions, trailing buoys, or ball-and-chain weights, while it also relates to the log rafts and small craft often pictured and built. These are the humble vessels for observation and dreaming, vehicles for finding the way through the labyrinth of cracks, heaps of debris, or confusing signs, paths and streams.

After months of waiting the salmon came up the creek over miles of piles of twisted metal, glass, bed springs, tin cans. Floating over the excess of human achievement and understanding, looking for a place to lay the eggs. I am in the studio hoping the mirror won’t fall over and kill the reflection.
—Wiley, Reflected Still Life, watercolor, 1970

ALLAN MADE A FILM ABOUT salmon, approximately three years ago, and though it still remains in a roughly edited state (he is indifferent to certain kinds of refinements or explanations), it has been shown to friends and students a number of times. It inspired Wiley to transform some of its more abstract esthetic qualities into material for his own recent film, Man’s Nature. After about four years of life the salmon swim upstream into freshwater creeks and rivers, to lay their eggs on the rocks. They are already decomposing and turning pink by the time they do this and, once they lay their eggs, they generally die from the effort. Taking this process as the subject matter of his collage-like film, Allan traces the fish into their river-bed haunts; silver and pink flashes through the dark rocks and fluid streams, in different stages of activity and struggle—the means of reproduction being also the final step toward death. The constant flow of the water, the dappled shifts in light and shade, the delicacy of the glinting fish, and the variety of this still very specific, natural imagery causes the whole film to breathe with an alternating tension and breadth that makes the microcosmic situation of the salmon into a universal one. It is also a startlingly handsome visual whole—more than fish, water, and rocks.

Wiley’s film, Man’s Nature, is a blend of the two components in the title, the one a mirror reflection of the other, expanded into dimensions of time, and sound, as well as image and movement. For the first half of this roughly thirty-minute-long reel, the image on the screen is that of water flowing over the rocks in a shady, sun-speckled creek—the monotonous but changing liquid ripples transparently over the earth and the accidental configurations of stones in the creek-bed. The sound track that accompanies this section is a rhythmic, hiccoughing, loon-like laughter—the artist’s voice, in fact—which echoes hauntingly, and is reminiscent of the canned laughter used in amusement park fun houses. The camera zeroes in closer to the water, until finally the image is just a shining surface of whirlpools and swells, abstracted to the point of almost dissolving its identity as water. Then, abruptly, the laughter stops and the sound track continues with the noise of gurgling water, while the camera is aimed near to it. As the visual material looks more vague, the auditory information becomes more specific, an interweaving of focus that also carries over into the second half. The picture changes to show Wiley sitting on a chair in a corner, surrounded by slingshots on the floor, listening to the continuous sounds of the water, and making self-absorbed nodding motions as he hears the noises. Then he begins to make faces “in sync” with the water, his expressions a résumé of all types of transient responses, moods, and ages, also paralleling the peculiar silly laughter heard before-which then returns and replaces the water sounds. The screen finally goes blank after he tires of miming. Some confusion is heard with voices in conversation, then the film ends with the laughter track. One dimension of sight is woven against, or into, another in sound, all parts being interchangeable reflections of each other.

Dear Reader,
I looked around the studio there were no signs to be read. Was this the much sought after pure state of mind? Emptiness echoed like a highway sign in the wind. I sat calm at the center of the storm. With a blank face in a blank space and full of it. If those points of knowledge like stars are edges of anxiety, like decimals and heart beats, like tools and trade, why? are we taught to separate them like animals caged and dining in fear? Perhaps the time has weathered habit enough to de-laminate the wooden reasoning and we can take to our palate new songs and words and forms which at the outset might look the same but the colors backing them will be such that any fool can see. Tra, la, la.
Your friend, Wm. T. Wiley.
Pure Artist’s Tattoo/No Signs to be Read, watercolor, 1970

Asian Carp is a shorter, “more exotic” film about fish, while others of Allan’s movies are brief narratives of absurd situations. Span shows the artist directing Bruce Nauman in the assemblage of a span structure-the latter proving to be rather inexperienced and fumbling at this task. The construction is a cross-braced wood contraption with a piece of black vinyl attached to it, which is left flapping just above the water level of the creek it bridges. It serves no purpose at all, and is totally out of place in its site, a low-class parody of the way that architects often impose man-made structures on Nature with little consideration or accommodation to the natural setting. Abstracting a Shoe exemplifies the more bizarre turn of Allan’s humor. In it, a pair of hands is busy reconstructing the form of a single old shoe, by modeling it out of a sticky mass of black tar. A recalcitrant and ridiculous material is put into service to make an ugly mockery of a once comfortable, usable object, meanwhile perverting its form and function with a lot of difficulty! His earlier use of concrete for sculptures was along similar lines (i.e., an unrefined, rough, man-made substance) and, in at least one instance, it was made to impose itself on a site in much the same way as the structure in the film Span.

Allan’s recent paintings are somewhat more philosophical than the films, but they also display his unique and peculiar blend of materialism, metaphysics, nature, and absurdity. Half a Dam, a painting nearing completion during the summer of 1970, stemmed from the earlier cement construction of the same name. It had been made to put in a stream, allowing the water to run through only one side of the channel. The story behind it involves a running argument, between local Indians and other residents in the state of Washington, over the topic of fishing rights and dams—both sides of the problem looking equally ridiculous from an outside vantage point, with the polarities of disagreement hiding the basic truths of the matter. Allan’s picture shows the labeled sculpture in the middle of a forest stream (a reference to his own work in another medium, which Wiley also makes frequently), with a dead salmon lying on the rocks in the foreground. It is also a rather obvious punned comment on the degree to which most of us do or don’t care about what we’re doing—whether fishing, arguing a cause, or looking at a painting.

Allan is constantly poking at our consciousness of how we see and feel ourselves moving around in our environment. A painting exhibited last year in the Whitney Annual shows a sailboat called Self-Improvement II, which is dragging an apple core across white-capped waves. From the mast, the advising legends “Speak French,” “Driftwood Savvy,” “The Body Free,” “Natural Foods,” and “Look to the Stars” swing out like giant rudders. A microphone, protruding like an anxious interviewer from a rock jetty, is topped by a plaque which reads “Speak to the Sea”—a didactic and strange juxtaposition of the boat and the microphone, the words and the vast ocean landscape, which point out what a man ought to do in order to close the gaps between his estrangement from Nature, and the lessons it can bear to him. Even more outrageously cryptic in its contrast of imagery and natural scene is the painting called Shadow Repair for the Western Man, in which a pair of worn, patched blue jeans and old shoes (the artist’s second skin) stand bodiless and empty in front of a view of icy mountains and windswept clouds. Although the tale behind this personal iconography was an involved anecdote, the gist of the painting is that Nature is not just entertainment—that it can be as scary, cold, and isolated as those glacial mountains and open skies. Few of us have ever experienced it at such extremes. But Allan also likes to evoke some middle ground between what he calls the “human give-aways” (the comfortable pants and shoes) and the cold awe and distance of Nature’s space and time.

Wiley’s nostalgic windows opening into his private world of discovery and invention often focus. on tinier, more whimsical situations but, like Allan, he equates them with the range of infinity, and then brings them back down to the level of man and the mundane. A series of six watercolors called the Trip to Eureka narrates such an event in poetic caption form. The pictorial images match the ending of the story in an abstracted, but also concrete manner, with repeated oval shapes that are monochromed in all but the last picture. While visiting a friend, Wiley took his first motorcycle ride in a driving rain:

#3. Suddenly we were going about 95 mph down the freeway—the rain hitting my lace felt like needles—I was amazed thrilled and terrified—I thought ’one slip and that’s it’ when I realized how scary that was I gave up the fear and enjoyed the ride.

#4. Finally we arrived and went into the museum —inside it was warm and dry and very quiet after the roar of the bike—we walked around looking at the relics in our dripping clothes—rounding a divider I came upon an incredible sight.

#5. Row upon row of bird’s eggs—resting in dusty cotton under glass—in wooden cases—the cases seemed to be about 5 feet wide and 40 or 50 feet long—memory may have enlarged the dimensions or even shrunk them.

#6. I stood there stupefied—it took a while for it to sink in—all those soft pale whites, blues, grays, browns, speckled and glowing under the palm of my hand—Epilogue—all the time it takes—Man’s Nature.

July 24, 1970.

Emily Wasserman