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What’s It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect

Journey Through an Artistic Wormhole

What is the purpose of the retrospective exhibition? To give viewers a sense of the depth and breadth of an artist’s work over his or her career? To allow perspective on a lifetime of creation, thus giving rise to profound statements on the overall meaning of one’s work? Or just to see the immense variety, or lack thereof, that one mind is capable of producing?

In the case of What’s It All Mean, depth, breadth, and variety are all absolutely manifest; delivering judgment on Wiley’s overall oeuvre (50 years worth). However, deriving an overarching meaning may be difficult as this Bay Area local is still producing. So what does it all mean? With such a wild profusion of media, style, subject matter, and theme, it is hard to say, but it certainly gives viewers much to think about.

Perhaps most prominent among Wiley’s works, and most compelling, are his line drawings using various media. In “Hide as a State of Mind,” Wiley has completely covered an almost two-foot by three-foot sheet of paper with intricate lines of ink, outlining a jagged coastline, a wavy sea with a tiny ship, and a vast patchwork of fields bordered by cliffs. The word “hide,” written in cursive lower case letters, hides in plain sight, standing atop a plateau in the center of the canvas.

Even more interesting is the composition, an aspect of Wiley’s work that continually surprises. The page is split in two — a black-and-white striped surveyor’s staff diagonally cutting it three-fourths of the way across. To the right of the staff, the landscape is colorless, still filled with detailed lines but looking as barren as the arctic ice. To the left, color abounds — blues, greens, and yellows — filling the tiny spaces delineated by fine, inky lines.

Another interesting compositional technique appears in “Random Remarks and Digs”. Here, he has leaned another surveyor’s pole — an object appears often in the work of a man fascinated by voyage and discovery — topped by what looks like a billiard triangle against the canvas. On the canvas is painted the rough mirror image of the pole and triangle.

Floating all around the broad, orange space of the canvas is numerous balls, some blue, some white. Wiley has conceived the balls as representing several things: marbles, billiard balls, even atoms. The blue ones also apparently represent his age at the time of the painting, and Wiley’s original intention was, no matter where the piece was, to paint one more ball blue each year as he aged. Thus the work is always in progress.

Wiley’s later works take up the art historical cannon, particularly the works of Pieter Brueghel and Hieronymous Bosch. Massive canvasses bring these 16th century masters back to life and tie them to more contemporary themes such as homelessness and toxic spills. There are a number of these, all equally interesting, that point back to famous images from the two painters, particularly the nightmarish creatures characteristic of Bosch’s works.

However, what is impressive about the exhibition is that Wiley’s works are truly multi-media. While he has worked extensively in watercolor, oil, acrylic, pen, and pencil, often incorporating other three-dimensional objects, Wiley has also spread his talents as far as filmmaking and, yes, pinball machines. Only one of his pinball machines is on display — “Only One Earth” — but it is an amusing work that incorporates not only wonderful visuals, but also a political message (as does much of Wiley’s work).

What’s It All Mean is all that a retrospective should be and more. It gives viewers a glance at Wiley’s body of work and indicates, at least in a small way, the scope of his artistic talents, interests, and influences. Also be sure to catch a couple of his films playing at the Pacific Film Archive over the course of the exhibition.

Berkeley Art Museum
Now through July 18, 2010
Free to $8