New York

William Wiley

Frumkin Gallery

Like Schneemann’s, William Wiley’s pieces, for all their humor, are muffled in a disappointment with or disbelief in art. This is true of every artist who distrusts form (and all good ones, especially good formalists, do to some extent), but in Wiley one senses that the tastelessness that so outrages his critics (the thing that makes him at once vital and tiresome) is the manifestation of a feeling that nothing matters, rather than of simple iconoclasm. Thus we have the divided intellect fighting it out between ingenuous brilliance and brilliant stupidity, while the weary, shackled body ignores them in cumbersome, self-destructive ennui: in Bones, Dunce, and Gentleman, 1982, two stainless steel columns are linked like Siamese twins; one wears a dunce cap, one a top hat; between them, on the floor, in traction, sits a black skeleton clutching a pack of Camels.

What’s interesting is how Wiley’s sculptures are most innovative formally when something does matter after all, when the emotion they distill is strongest. With Bones . . . , a sadness is blended with the cynicism in the soupy buffoonery. Light Touches Fall Colors, 1982, one of the few attempts extant to find a sculptural equivalent to painterly streaming light, entails a haikulike physicalization of a lyrical response to a heart-stoppingly nostalgic fall day. Wiley needs to be exceptionally alert and sensitive like this, or else abandon his Eastern interests for some Western editing. He is often guilty of knowing all the answers ahead of time—not very Zen. Neither are his mild jokes—Eastern transcendental humor is frequently quite brutal. In the past, Wiley has had other art to sharpen his wit on. It may or may not have been enough, but it gave a focus to his malaise. He was good in opposition. The new piece that is most pointedly commentarial is a too generalized, even though comprehensive, definition of art, and nothing new. O.T.P.A.G. for E.T.S., 1982, is a palette speared with a cross, wrapped with a snake, topped with an owl, pierced by a window, backed by a jug, and embellished with a target and a prod. Art: a little religion (old testament and new), a little wisdom, a little science (the caduceus aspect), a little insight, and behind it all a little corn liquor. You have to be drunk, a martyr, and a sadist to make it. Only putting this piece next to one of Anselm Kiefer’s phoenix palettes would give it any specific meaning.

The very quality that insulates Wiley’s work from criticism—a refusal to play the game—is what harms it. No longer combative, it’s now too defensive—and maybe even evasive.

Jeanne Silverthorne