THE ART OF William T. Wiley swirls with clues as to its meaning: punning fragments of text (e.g., "one sighs fits all"), symbols such as figure eights and tic-tac-toe grids, recurring motifs such as human skulls and dunce caps, and mischievous pop-cultural and art-historical references. On view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, "Current Evince: Selected Prints by William T. Wiley From the Smithsonian American Art Museum" is a collection of densely layered ciphers, with images and scribbles laid one on top of the other. If the individual components of the artist's visual vocabulary form a kind of rebus, as curator Eric Denker says, it is one that is not always easy to decode.
Culled from a group of 75 prints and drawings donated by the California artist to the American Art Museum (which is closed for renovation) and supplemented by works owned by the Corcoran and others lent by Wiley, "Current Evince" operates more like music than language. Its dissonances, occasional harmonies and repeated themes are heard but cannot, it seems, always be translated into simple statements. This isn't to say that we feel them instead of understand them -- plucking on our emotions being far from the way Wiley operates. Rather, they strike jazz-like notes that only make sense when played all together. Individually, they're just noise.
So what are Wiley's themes? Mortality; eternity; the degradation of the environment; the absurdity of contemporary life, politics and art. Heavy stuff at times, lighter at others, as in the one-liner, "Aboriginal Child Frightened by Abstraction," in which an antiquely rendered boy seems startled by a giant blob of modern art. Yet even at his most serious, Wiley maintains a kind of smirk about things, poking fun at rather than excoriating such targets as the late Walt Disney, who is depicted, along with a blind, beatnik Mickey Mouse, against the backdrop of a cryogenic tank of the type in which Disney's remains are said to be preserved. Other subjects include the artist himself, shown taking a bow while tipping his dunce -- or sorcerer's -- cap in "Mr. Unatural," one of two similar works that seem to suggest the artist is either a genius with magical powers or an idiot.
Contrary to the show's tongue-in-cheeky title, there is little that is direct or plain about Wiley's communiques.
Take "Deneb," for instance, a color lithograph that takes its name from the star that appears in the constellation Cygnus and may, in fact, have long since gone out. On one level, it's a pretty straightforward commentary about the ephemeral nature of things. There's a passage of text, reading in part: "the light that touches our faces has fallen for sixteen thousand years -- maybe there's something behind it, and maybe there isn't." Wiley's art, in a sense, is like that light, and he's like the star. After the artist is gone, he seems to be saying, and all that's left is the picture, we may still be looking at it and trying to figure out the joke.
Which may, in the end, make us the punch line.
CURRENT EVINCE: SELECTED PRINTS BY WILLIAM T. WILEY FROM THE SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM -- Through Sept. 12 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202-639-1700. www.corcoran.org. Open Wednesday-Sunday 10 to 5; Thursdays 10 to 9; Labor Day 10 to 5. $8; seniors and military personnel $6; students $4; guests of members $3, family groups $12. Members and children younger than 12 free. "Pay as you wish" admission on Thursdays after 5.