When he was a boy in Bedford, Indiana, William T. Wiley liked to lie on the floor, listen to the radio and draw.
In his 76th year, Wiley is still doing it, “But I’m standing up a lot more now,” he said last week as he installed a full-scale mock-up of a wall from his Woodacre studio at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.
One of America’s most celebrated contemporary artists, and a dean of the California art scene, Wiley attacks serious subjects with gentle glee and a compulsive punster’s sense of humor.
His works are profoundly political but without polemics, and are almost always wryly amusing. As is he.
Ask him what he prefers to be called, he answers, “William, Bill, some people just call me Wiley, but I prefer to be called to dinner.”
The titles of his works tell their own convoluted stories: “A.W.O.L. in the Middle Leased,” “Canary in the Cold Mind,” “Repainting the Blood Shed,” and “No Bell Prys for Peace with Predator Drone.”
While Wiley is a political painter, his work can’t be easily reduced to simple messages. They are intriguingly complex, multi-layered, often with mixed media. The meaning and message, said Wiley, “happens as a painting is progressing. I can’t help but mess around with words.”
That skill set extends to his music too. For years Wiley has played the guitar, sometimes in a band, and written clever and original music, including the playful “Yum Yum Song,” the lyrics of which are simply:
“She’s my snack, she’s my main meal, She’s my dessert.
“I come back for second helpings, hell, that don’t hurt.
“And you know, there’s one thing about this meal, that’s gonna please,
“It ain’t loaded with cholesterol and calories.”
Since he quit teaching, his creative routine is a bit more relaxed. “I think I’m a little more at ease about it,” he says. His West Marin studio is near his home. “Usually I go in, sit down, turn on the radio (KPFA or NPR) and work on what’s happening, day-to-day. My work is in response to the world, good or bad. And then characters show up.”
Those characters famously include a goat and a raven, the goat sometimes presented as a variation of Robert Rauschenberg’s signature “Combine” of a stuffed goat wrapped in a tire.
Wiley credits a high school art teacher in Richland, Washington, – where the family moved after selling the Indiana farm and traveling the West for three years in a house trailer.
“He really opened my eyes to artists,” Wiley says of that teacher, who helped him win a scholarship to the California Art Institute where one of his teachers was Elmer Bischoff, the great figurative artist who influenced a generation of students.
The Bay Area milieu clearly helped shape his personal and political values, although he insists he doesn’t get “deeply philosophical” about politics, he doesn’t “do marches or rallies.” But there clearly is passion behind the images he creates. He points to a row of sketches on the mock-studio wall he is installing, the images all various objects on fire – a Bangladesh garment factory fire, an immolated Buddhist monk – and he waves his hands up and down in exaggerated horror, as if to say, “how could you not make a statement from those events?”