Smithsonian American Art Museum Highlights William T. Wiley

The environmental commentary "Portrait of Radon" is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's William T. Wiley exhibit.
The environmental commentary "Portrait of Radon" is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's William T. Wiley exhibit. (Copyright William T. Wiley/gene Young)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

Writing about the art of William T. Wiley isn't easy. That's all right. There's enough verbiage -- some might even say logorrhea -- on view in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's "What's It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect" to make up for a roomful of tongue-tied critics.

The show consists of painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking and film -- even a working pinball machine -- but you'll need one thing above all else here: reading glasses. When I say verbiage, I mean that quite literally. The artist's loopy penmanship is scrawled across the surface of almost every picture and several sculptures. More of the artist's handwriting samples are on view at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery, in "William T. Wiley: 'Trust Us for Just Us.' "

The invitation to read is extended by the artist. At a recent media preview, Wiley (who will turn a puckish 72 this month) invited the crowd to explore the galleries with the declaration that "the work is here for you to look at -- read." Though known as a joker -- Wiley's work teems with sly humor -- he wasn't kidding.

Take "Detail Study From the Bright Side." Begun in 1977, the work on paper centers on a small detail, copied from an 1865 Winslow Homer painting of an escaped slave. But the picture itself is drowning in a sea of text. Surrounding the image is a border of handwriting lifted from such diverse literary sources as Shunryu Suzuki's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" and a letter from the Duwamish Indian chief known as Seattle to Washington state.

Don't worry. Neither passage has anything to do with the other, let alone with the subject of Homer's painting. Rather, as curator Joann Moser writes in the show's catalogue, they "reveal the range of the artist's thoughts over time." How much time? Wiley finally got around to finishing the diary -- er, drawing -- in 1988.

Sometimes, the words come in handy. The artist's 1982 "Portrait of Radon," for instance, consists of a map of the United States bisected by a dark, diagonal slash. Read the fine print and you'll discover that the line represents, in graphic visual terms, just how much toxic waste material has been scattered about the country from the mining of uranium ore: enough to build a 12-lane superhighway one foot deep from Los Angeles to New York, the artist has calculated.

The artist's high school years were spent in Richland, Wash., home of the Hanford Atomic Works, the world's first plutonium reactor.

If environmental concerns are in Wiley's blood -- and in much of his art -- then so too is a goofy, at times cartoonish, humor. This may, in fact, explain why the current show is the artist's first retrospective since 1980. Some folks, apparently, just can't take anyone all that seriously who can't seem to look at himself -- or the art world -- with a straight face. Along with Homer, look for nose-thumbing references throughout the show to such artists as Hieronymus Bosch, Walt Disney and Vincent van Gogh.

"Dear Theo" -- a copy of the artist's famous self-portrait, complete with bandaged ear -- can be read as a snickering joke about the cliche of the tortured artist. But read it more deeply -- and I mean literally read it -- and the letter scrawled across its surface (from Wiley, writing in the guise of van Gogh to brother Theo) cracks wise about van Goghs being fakes. "All of 'em."

So, what does it all mean?

Taking its title from a 1968 Wiley work, "A Sign From the Country Painter" -- an old-fashioned wooden artist's palette adorned with plastic letters spelling out the show's central enigma -- "What's It All Mean" is both a question and a statement about that question's fundamental unanswerability.

Here and there in the show, you'll encounter another bit of text: the letters "O.T.P.A.G." scrawled on the surface of various works. There isn't anything in the museum's wall text that explains this, but the acronym stands for "On the Palette Anything Goes." It's one of several mysterious initialisms that will probably leave you scratching your head in befuddlement.

It's also as concise a statement of Wiley's philosophy as any.

What's It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect Through Jan. 24 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW (Metro: Gallery Place). Contact: 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285). Hours: Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission: Free. William T. Wiley: "Trust Us for Just Us" Through Nov. 14 at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, 2012 R St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). Contact: 202-328-0088. Hours: Wednesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Free.

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