Along with Roy DeForest and Robert Arneson, his teaching colleagues at the legendary UC Davis art department of the 1960s and ’70s, William T. Wiley was a seminal progenitor of West Coast Funk.
His laid-back, arcane imagery, punning titles, laconic poetic musings and anti-high-art stance led Art News to call him “Huckleberry Duchamp” and critic Hilton Kramer to characterize his work as “Dude-Ranch-Dada.” Both terms apply, but Wiley has grown over the years into a major American artist whose complex work is deceptively casual, socially and politically conscious and richly allusive.
Though best known, perhaps, for his brilliant, imagistically dense watercolors, he is also the maker of ambitiously scaled paintings, graphically rich etchings and wry films and sculptures. As his current show of mostly small drawings at b. sakata garo demonstrates, he is also the creator of intimate and searching works, mostly done in ink, though there are also a few gemlike watercolors.
“Green Extravagance,” indeed, has an extravagant green sky with a black-and-white striped triangle hovering over a landscape with a small house and a mysterious X marking a spot.
Less typical of his watercolors are “Canyon Cool,” a loose, lush watercolor and ink work of a fluid landscape, and “W. I. C.,” a dark, brushy watercolor and ink painting of a figure and an artist at an easel in a studio setting.
Save for a funky sheet-metal work with a punning title, “Seize Her or Barrier,” the rest of the works in the show are done in ink on paper and are primarily from the 1970s and ’80s.
Mystery and lyricism infuse “Changes in the Garden” a winsome drawing of a shadowy figure in front of a canvas in a rural garden with a gemlike geometric form. “Outside for a Little Sun” is a jazzy piece of graphic handwriting hung next to “Martial at the Door,” a drawing of an ominous hooded entity in a doorway standing behind a huge wooden cube.
Equally enigmatic and slyly humorous is “Log Face Deer Creek,” a lithe drawing of a piece of lumber with hardware on the side that forms a face. While “Bargain Prices for the ISIS,” depicting what might be a grenade on a large box, suggests a reference to current events, it was done in 1974. Perhaps it was a premonition.
The bulk of the show consists of maddeningly obscure yet fascinating automatic drawings that form dense scribbled rectangles on which nearly subliminal forms – a heart? a buttocks? a violin’s f-hole? an amorphous figure? – emerge as if from a liminal state between sleeping and waking.
“The Dark Home” is a work with 10 panels, some obscure, some with submerged images, one with a strong image of an alchemist’s vial. It’s a stunningly rich and poetic series.
Wiley gets a lot of color variation into these ink drawings, ranging from the rusty hue of “Sepia Marks” to the chocolate tones of the cryptically titled “I. D. K. W. T. C.” Each panel of “The Dark Home” has a different tone or value, making it a tour de force of mysterious markings.
The hanging of the show is as quixotic as Wiley’s work. Five of the drawings of subconscious imagery are hung together at one end of the gallery’s long red brick wall. Somehow it works.
You’ll have to hurry to catch this show, which finishes up on Saturday, Dec. 19. It’ll be worth the effort.
William T. Wiley: Drawings
Where: b. sakata garo, 923 20th St., Sacramento
When: Through Saturday, Dec. 19, Noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Information: 916-447-4276, www.bsakatagaro.com