The Wild Art Legacy of William T. Wiley
LOS ANGELES — A well-curated exhibit makes for a fantastic art class, and a shining example can be found at the Parker Gallery if you hurry there before the current group show closes on August 6. Nothing can be done for William T. Wiley is two things at once: a roller derby of irreverent and energetic ideas, and a serious revelation about the historical significance of Northern California art.
The Southern California art scene is generally equated with the West Coast’s contribution to mid- to late-twentieth-century American art, that is, deftly cutting the rug beneath the lofty minimalism of New York with a mix of conceptualism and humor. Familiar names in this field include John Baldessari, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy and Ed Ruscha. But there was tremendous energy further north in the Bay Area, and much of it came from William T. Wiley, a founder of the funk movement, who taught at UC Davis in the 1960s and died there. ‘last year.
Wiley is represented by six works of art in this exhibition, including sculptures and works on paper, reflecting the breadth of his invention. My favorite is “Allan’s Book of the Month Club” (1966), in which the artist, a famous pun, constructed a war club with a wooden handle, the business end of which is a book sporting an ugly spike. I’ve never joined a book club lest sitting in these circles make me feel exactly like I’m being beaten over the head by a club more or less like Wiley’s, so this sculpture immediately struck a chord with me speak.
An undercurrent of humor, often involving puns, flows from Wiley and into many of the 47 works featured. Jimmie Durham has a terrific piece called “Scruples” (2014) involving two small stones displayed in a bell, with a handwritten note explaining that the Latin root scruple refers to a rock in your shoe that causes you to hesitate or change direction. As good a definition of art as any: great art can be irritating, forcing us to rethink our values and even our lives. Bruce Nauman, a master irritant and a student of Wiley, embraces his teacher’s playful spirit in seven works on paper, all untitled from 1968. One is a simple list of sentences, each launching the previous in a winding chain of associations, so that Nauman ended up finding his way from registration at squaredat to abandon and on jerk offthen to take offand finally add. A nearby drawing shows Nauman following a similar visual link: a square knot becomes the ear of artist HC Westermann. These works are not just a window into Nauman’s exploratory process, but a careful demonstration of how the stream of consciousness thought experiments underlies so much great art.
Wiley was a pioneer of text-based art. “Tension on the Cable” (1972) is a fine example of his approach. A soft watercolor depicts a large tree branch supporting a cable, the function of which is far from clear but may involve a rope over a stream. Three cursive lines written below impersonate a caption but have no clear relationship to anything above; they’re simply goofy doggerels encouraging the reader to keep the rhymes and the game going, flowing like the bubbling brook in the picture.
Subsequent artists have indeed kept up Wiley’s pace, including those who were never his students, such as Ree Morton, Sue Williams and Amy Yao, all represented in this show. I love everything Morton has ever done and am ever so delighted with her drawing “Untitled (Woodgrain, Flower Parts)” (c. 1974), in which she draws and labels the reproductive organs of a flower, leaving the spectators glean all that is involved. Flowers produce fruit, and this exhibit opened my eyes to the ripe harvest of Wiley’s legacy.
Nothing can be done for William T. Wiley continues at Parker Gallery (2441 Glendower Avenue, Los Angeles, CA) through August 6. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.