Wiley Show Flouts Conventions

Posted September 30, 2009 at 4:51pm

One of the first works of art a viewer comes across in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new exhibit, “What’s It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect,— depicts Wiley’s alter ego.

In 1965, Wiley painted “The Great Blondino (Self-Portrait),— a take on a 19th-century French acrobat named Henri Blondin. In Wiley’s version, however, Blondin is transformed into a blindfolded comic book hero, pushing a barrel over Niagara Falls on a tightrope. The painting in shades of gray adds a postcard-style caption, “It was wonderful Mom!—

The work captures some of the humor and irony typical of the works on display in the exhibit. This is the first retrospective on Wiley’s career since 1979, when the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minn., held a show. The new exhibit includes 88 works, arranged in chronological order from 1959 through 2008.

The exhibit’s title comes from a wooden artist’s palette Wiley painted with the phrase “Whats It All Mean— in 1968. Curator Joann Moser said Wiley made the palette at a time when he was questioning his place in the art world, but the title also works as a description of how people react to Wiley’s art.

“It’s a title that worked very well for this exhibition because a lot of people see Wiley’s work and they don’t get it right away,— she said. “It’s not the type of work you look at and say, ‘Oh, that’s what it’s about.’ You have to come back and spend time with it.—

Wiley grew up in Richland, Wash., where his high school art teacher inspired him to pursue a career as an artist. He graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1962 and became an art professor at the University of California, Davis.

Wiley’s art became more individualistic as time went on, using more colors, more mixed media and more text to make his point. In 1970, he produced a piece named after the text scrawled across the bottom: “I Wish I Could Have Known Earlier That You Have All the Time You’ll Ever Need Right Up to the Day You Die.— The art itself is a random spectrum of color blocks, 15 across and 10 down, that leaves the viewer pondering his words.

In 1982, Wiley used his experience growing up in the town that housed the Hanford Atomic Works plutonium plant to paint “Portrait of Radon.— The painting serves as a caricature of the United States. Its title is a play on the news of the early 1980s that the “poor trait of radon— was that it could drift into homes through cracks in the foundation, according to the museum’s explanation of the art.

The whole exhibit leads up to Wiley’s most recent work: a cleverly designed pinball machine he finished in 2008 called “Punball: Only One Earth.— Phrases and themes from his previous art mean a viewer could spend an hour just going over each part of the machine. It’s actually a working pinball machine, and the museum will allow some visitors to play on a few Thursday nights between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m.

The museum has scheduled several more events in connection with the exhibit before it closes on Jan. 24, 2010. This Saturday, Wiley will perform original music on his harmonica at 11:30 a.m. in the museum’s courtyard as part of the Family Day program. Moser will lead a gallery talk at 6 p.m. on Oct. 20, and David Silverman, a pinball machine collector and historian, will give a lecture and demonstration from 3 to 6 p.m. on Oct. 31.

Other events connected to the exhibit include a screening of Wiley’s films and a screening of films inspired by Wiley, an improvisational group’s performance, a printmaking session and docent-led tours. Visit americanart.si.edu/calendar for the museum’s full schedule of upcoming events.