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The Story Behind the Work

Friday, October 9, 2009

William T. Wiley can't help himself, dropping a naughty, anatomical allusion to pinballs even while presenting his version of the game, "Punball: Only One Earth."

The 2007-08 work, the newest piece in "What's It All Mean," is classic Wiley, featuring a likeness of the artist's alter ego, Mr. Unatural [sic] -- a caricatured self-portrait with fake nose, dunce cap and bathrobe, clearly inspired by cartoonist R. Crumb's famous Mr. Natural -- painted onto the machine's backglass. The original 1964 machine featured a parka-clad Elvis on an ice floe, serenading a miniskirted Eskimo and her pet polar bear. Wiley's version takes a less blithe view of weather at the poles, featuring the punning warning "The Eye Scabs Are Melting."

All hope is not yet lost, Wiley seems to say. Score 1,000 points and a lighthouse lights up, shining its beacon on a drifting Earth. "I've never scored that high," says Wiley.

Public program: On Thursday from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., visitors will have the rare opportunity to play Wiley's machine, on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The event repeats Oct. 29, Nov. 12 and Dec. 3 and 17.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

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