Newport Beach

William Wiley

Newport Harbor Art

William Wiley’s sensibility has always had what might be called a ragged edge. It can be seen in his work as a web of cardiographic lines that pervades an image and peels away its veneer. This edge is an expression of consciousness, but not of continuity. Like a perceptual trip-wire, it affirms the vitality of each succeeding moment. There are no points A to Z, just islands of imagery lost among rivers of interstices. All of Wiley’s art is assembled from the shards of a consciousness that dies and regenerates with each stroke of the pen.

With these 13 steel assemblages, Wiley has upped the voltage of his edge by turning it against the materials of industry. Collectively titled “Steal Witness for the Time Being,” these pieces, fabricated at Lippincott, Inc., in 1981 and 1982, are about waste. (And so, of course, is the assemblage method itself.) Inspired by the Farallon Islands disaster of the late ’40s, in which fifty thousand drums of radioactive waste were dumped into the ocean near San Francisco, where they still remain, Wiley uses steel as if it were driftwood. For Robert Smithson, the fundamental property of steel was rust; for Wiley, rust is the color of waste, the inflection of time. Many of these works are assembled out of themselves, which means that they first have to be cut up, or deidealized. What is hard and geometric about a Cor-ten steel plate is instantly liquefied by the wave of a welding torch. With fire, Wiley draws hot caverns into cold densities. He eats away at the rhetoric of permanence built into modern alloys by overwhelming them with the very forces they pretend to resist: fire, water, air, and time, but time accelerated by modern tools. These are versions of industrial waste, and as Smithson also pointed out, waste is the yin of industry’s yang.

Nomad is an Island, 1981, is about the Farallons. A rusty steel plate, shaped roughly like an artist’s palette, is a slightly elevated stage for a modern version of the “ship of fools” motif. A cast of silhouette rats, oversized salamanders, a snail, human bones, and several duncecapped personifications of the artist (as Mr. Unnatural) dance in a Boschian frenzy around a leaking oil drum. Acrylic paint runs across the “palette.” The “Samurai Creed,” which links human destiny with nature, is stamped into a lead sheet, but is pierced by a sword. The viewer’s movement around the piece induces a sense of slippage, as if at the edge of a whirlpool.

Mugging, 1982, suggests a violent struggle within the self. Atop a triangular platform (a palette) coated with tar (primal ooze), two white steel spheres (eyeballs) sit on rusty pedestals (altars) and are linked by chains (lines of sight) to the empty slots ( ) ( ) of a steel mask that has a massive steel boot in its face. The startled mask seems to have been kicked back from its eyes; the tar-coated platform is like a giant skid mark. Lying in the primal muck, decaying back into it, is a lead skeleton with colored wire streaming from its mouth, the victim of a psychic hit-and-run.

The Absence of Angel Wings for Crow, 1982, is a sublime little piece. For another sculpture, Wiley cut an angel’s wing out of a rectangular steel plate. Then he painted a landscape around the missing wing. In its space, the “space” of nature, the artist hung an orange moon, and he perched a black steel crow atop the scene. The crow is a manifestation of the angel’s wing; a transmigration between them is suggested. The actual reclamation of a piece of steel reinforces ones sense of spiritual reclamation.

It is tempting to claim for these works an implicit critique of Modern steel sculpture. Indeed, Wiley is known for his subversive stance with regard to formalist codes. Most steel art is abstract and big, and its forms are extensions of the industrial processes that govern their production; conversely, these ragged assemblages undermine the stability of ideal shapes and systems. But any such critique of esthetics is a side effect of Wiley’s application of art to broader social concerns. Rife with masks, cyclopean eyes, penetrating stares, and meditative gazes, Wiley’s steel “witnesses” are vestigial piles of industrial scrap, fused, for the time being, by a private intensity about articulating ones convictions in public.

Jeff Kelley