"I was astounded at such sagacity and such baseness, such alternately true and false notions, such absolute perversion of feeling and utter turpitude, and yet such uncommon candor." That's Diderot on his comic antihero in Rameau's Nephew (also the title of a Michael Snow film), but it could have been critical head-scratching in the 1960s about the humorous, idiosyncratic work of Californian William T. Wiley. Interpreting his cacophony of images and writing (jokes, ironic musings, puns, misspellings, homonyms, malapropisms, spoonerisms, and self-deprecating stage whispers — no Bob Ross "happy little trees" here!) as an assault on aesthetic purism, hostile gatekeepers of taste branded him Metaphysical Funk Monk, Dude Ranch Dadaist, grinning diddler, Huckleberry Duchamp, and — the unkindest cut — purveyor of "an arch pseudo-backwoods Scholasticism." Time has vindicated the trickster-sage of Woodacre, however. Wiley is now having a large retrospective, What's It All Mean, at Berkeley Art Museum, the only West Coast venue for this Smithsonian traveling show, and an early proponent; during its 1970 opening featuring a Wiley/Robert Hudson performance, museum director Peter Selz demanded, "Gimme some art!"
Done! While Marcel Duchamp has been called a one-person art movement, the term could be applied equally to Wiley, who abandoned his masterly 1950s student work after finding Abstract Expressionism's "heavy moral trip" and heroic-combat ethos antithetical to his playful, mercurial temperament. He found his way through drawing, tined with watercolor, considered at the time a lowly medium. These drawing/paintings developed into sprawling landscapes/maps on simulated weathered parchment. Despite their absurdist humor and visual inventiveness, they tackle big issues: the defoliation and pacification of Vietnam; apartheid, genocide, police abuse of power and political violence; offshore drilling and ocean desertification; fundamentalism and creationism; and the "old lie," glorifying and glamorizing war. Formally speaking, Wiley's expansion of the assemblage tradition, particularly as evidenced in his Rube-Goldberg-in-buckskin sculptures, makes him the Left Coast Rauschenberg (his semi-erased "Mona Lisa Wipe Out..." pays homage to Maximum Bob, with additional nods to deKooning, Duchamp, and Leonardo). His mixture of art-history appropriations (Winslow Homer, Bosch, Bruegel, and Manet), cartoon surrogates (Mr. Unatural and Zenry) and comic patter create a cultural mash-up that never settles into political correctness or hardens into aesthetic amber, remaining unruly, alive, and undogmatic. On a palette, anything goes — well, if you can bring it off, anyway. Catalog available; special events include April 24 gala, April 25 symposium, and May 21 performance; Wiley films will be screened at Pacific Film Archive at various dates. What's It All Mean runs through July 18 at Berkeley Art Museum (2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley). 510-642-0808 or BAMPFA.berkeley.edu.