William T. Wiley, art's great old hippie, has been both revered and ridiculed. A leading proponent of the Bay Area Funk School that also included such San Francisco Art Institute cohorts as Robert Arneson and Roy DeForest, Wiley helped pave the way for art to take itself less seriously. And his works -- complicated melds of figurative imagery, often satirical text and personal symbolism -- owe as much to the comic books of his youth as they do to the issues and historical passages that provide, via the media, a constant subtext to our daily lives.
The breadth of Wiley's oeuvre, at least as it shakes out in print form, will be explored in William T. Wiley: 60 Works for 60 Years, a retrospective of etchings, lithographs and monoprints from the Belger Arts Center in Kansas City that opens today at the Center for Visual Art/MSCD. Wiley himself handpicked the sixty prints in the exhibit on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, and that's as it should be, coming from a man who's been quoted as saying, "I am my own enigma."
Picking through a long career was a bit of a personal road trip for Wiley. "When your intent, or lack thereof, and the magic come together, they still live on for you in some way," he says of the curating experience. In particular, examining prints brought back all the genre's uncharted possibilities. "You have to force yourself into some sort of accident," he remarks.
Not that art doesn't come naturally to Wiley. Although he was encouraged by his working-class father and his early art teacher Jim McGrath, he believes being an artist comes naturally to everyone. "Everybody is born one of some kind," he says. "What kind is hard to know until your voice becomes strong enough. But I had a natural inclination to do that. I did more than others; I was more intensely connected to it, and it wasn't discouraged. Or by the time it was, it was too late. I knew I had to have a full go at that to find out." That natural quality still drives his work today: "Often my works are stimulated by something I hear on the news, or sometimes I might be thumbing through an art book." An avid listener to public radio, he allows the news to permeate his works, providing quicksilver in-the-moment themes that weave their words into his canvases.
In Wiley's case, the subtext of language isn't necessarily implied. "When the visual imagery isn't as obvious, I'll give clues through the verbal," he says. "It's like I write my own graffiti on my own work. It doesn't wait for others to get there first. If you read it silently, that's one thing. But when you read the same thing out loud, it's something else," he teases.
Wiley notes that his love affair with text evolved when he traveled as a child. "I had so much exposure to language during that time: The hotels, the motels, the bathrooms, the Burma Shave signs -- it's all so rich. Roadside signs are a natural part of landscape."
Words form Wiley's artistic road map; they're firmly tied to his visual imagery. Sometimes they segue into song. When he appears at the CVA in October for what's billed as a "talk and performance," audience members may well be serenaded.
"I was working on a piece one day," he recalls, "when I heard about Walt Disney being frozen -- you know, cryogenically -- and I got this image of Mickey old and blind, and he sang to me, 'I may be blind, but I can see, what happened to Walt could have happened to me.' From Mickey and that little ditty there, a whole song evolved. It's called 'Blind Mickey's Blues.'" The songs, he adds, are a useful tool for explaining the development of a work during a slide show: "It's way better than standing in front of a bunch of people and going, 'Blah, blah, blah....'"