William Wiley, Portrait of Bah! (1971), watercolor and ink on paper with mixed media constructions, 11-1/2″ x 23-1/2″; courtesy George Adams Gallery
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My response to the work of the Bay Area artist William T. Wiley has always been tepid, but in a curious, unnamable way. I don’t dislike his art. When looking at one of Mr. Wiley’s elaborate mixed-media pictures, I’m amused by its dry and sly fusion of the mythological, the hermetic and the down-home. There’s a lot to see in one of his paintings, as well as things to appreciate. The trouble is, I never find myself in front of Mr. Wiley’s art willingly–I stumble upon it on the way to something else.
Thanks to A Slow Time in Arcadia, an exhibition at the George Adams Gallery that pairs Mr. Wiley with fellow San Franciscan Roy DeForest, I now understand my indifference. At the bottom of one of his canvases, Mr. Wiley has written his credo: “P.S. I’d rather be laid back-than layed [sic] up or down.” It’s not that I prefer art that’s uptight; it’s that I prefer art that gets up and goes. Mr. Wiley’s art just sits there, satisfied with its own reclusive self. Even when he makes a funny priapic effigy from a stick, some wire, a provocatively bent section of garden hose and an alarmingly grungy sock, Mr. Wiley does so with a casual disregard-as if he couldn’t care less whether anyone ever saw the thing.
The same is true of Mr. DeForest. I’m sad to say so, particularly because in the past I’ve enjoyed his cartoonish panoramas of dogs, deities and pinched dabs of acrylic paint. Is Mr. Wiley dragging Mr. DeForest down? The issue may be geographical. It was the conceptual artist John Baldessari, if I recall correctly, who defined the difference between the East Coast artist and the West Coast artist: The former worries about how his art fits into history, while the latter worries about how his art fits into his car.
I’m not about to engage in California bashing-not when one of my favorite painters, Richard Diebenkorn, is a son of the state, but a good-natured isolation may be the source of the laxity Mr. Wiley and Mr. DeForest share. I still hold out hope for the latter. Mr. DeForest’s Nevada (2002), a kitschy and cutesy mixed-media wall sculpture, is sardonic enough to make me believe that there’s more oomph to the oeuvre than is currently on display.
© 2002 Mario Naves
Originally published in the August 18, 2002 edition of The New York Observer.