Chicago

William T. Wiley

Frumkin & Struve Gallery

With his well-known persona—the faux naïf from the lotusland of Marin County—and his relentlessly esoteric references, William Wiley seems like a spiritualist who doesn’t want to take himself too seriously. He frequently masks his reverence with a veneer of wackiness in order to remain one of the northern-California good-time boys—along with Robert Hudson, Richard Shaw, Robert Arneson, and Roy DeForest—who make crazy constructions. He obscures his metaphysical concerns by cramming the canvas or paper surface with his signature febrile charcoal line which describes a personal repertoire of symbols, objects, and locales, interspersed with barely decipherable statements in punning, ad hoc spelling.

The nature of these signs and phrases suggests a very circumspect attitude, presenting the admirable role model of the artist as a reflective creator—reflective in the sense of both being introspective and mirroring societal concerns. A prominent source of Wiley’s imagery seems to be an obsessive desire to understand his own consciousness and, in a larger sense, existence; thus, a frequently depicted site is his studio and its wooded environs, where his psyche projects itself into works of art. Yet the visual noise—the dense, indistinct detail—frequently thwarts comprehension. His apparent ambivalence about communication evokes the detached demeanor of Modernist irony—an acknowledgment of interlocked eloquence and impotence. The impenetrability of these pictures suggests also that their main function is as diaristic records of Wiley’s own state of mind—that they are made for himself. Of course, this is an element of all art works, but they reveal themselves to a greater and lesser degree on view in.a public gallery.

Nevertheless, Wiley’s meditative perspective and his allusions to a sense of the sacred present an attempt, rare in current art, to grapple with spiritual conceptions of reality; in turn, the works encourage viewers piqued by metaphysical questions to attempt to cut through the thicket of whimsy and reflexiveness and grapple with the enigmas—Wiley’s and reality’s. With their poetic conjunctions of words and images, the compositions need to be studied at greater length, and in more comfort, than is generally possible in an exhibition space. Wiley should consider making artist’s books, so that the works could be scrutinized in one’s lap. This would require an alteration of not only size but internal scale, as his works are unreadable when photographically reduced. Alternatively, he could separate words and images, as he does in the evocative Ghost Canyons, Ghost Opinions, 1984, a view in watercolor and ink through a window to a luminous, faceted, labyrinthine landscape. Here the text is an affecting meditation best read aloud to catch its rhythm, which begins, “We live as ghosts . . . to who we really are . . . lugging around these hulks, husks, we’ve created. Been forced to form. . . .”

In several recent works Wiley seems to acknowledge the enigmatic literary quality of the images’ grisaille areas by juxtaposing them with bold sections in runny lurid hues, the broadly expressionistic technique contrasting dramatically with the precise drawings. Among these works is the mesmerizing Little Marks on Time . . . and the Threadbare Equator, 1984. Here his characteristic signs—including Möbius strips (signifying infinity), a meditative mandala, a conch shell, a music-staff mark, and a yin/yang symbol—float on and around a swirling sea of color. At the center is a very large white circle; it is like a “white hole” in the cosmos, sucking one through into the other side—toward light, clarity amid dense ambiguity, and a sense of the wholeness of the earth. In this Wiley has found a powerful image which communicates the yearning for enlightenment with not only symbolic resonance but visual immediacy.

Suzaan Boettger