Q and A: William Wiley

For over 50 years, the artist has approached serious topics with wit and a sense of the absurd

A retrospective of artist William T. Wiley's work is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (SAAM)
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You taught at University of California Davis during the 1960s. What's the key difference between student and teacher?
The name.

You say that you learned more as a teacher than when you were a student. Are your students also informing your work?
Oh, well, I'm no longer teaching, but the students informed my work as well. You never know who's going to teach you something. Sure, I'm learning through unusual or unobvious sources all the time. You never know where something's going to inspire you or move you to try and do something.

Your wife is also an artist, and your children?
Yes, they are. One works in film, the oldest, Ethan Wiley. If you've ever seen the movie House, or House II: The Second Story. Those are very early films by him. And my second son's an artist. Not in the way we're talking about. He teaches grade school and also teaches fishing in the summer time to kids and parents who don't know anything about the land or the wilderness.

You seem to love the playful pun and to morph words. Jesus Saves to Jesus Slaves, Wisdom to Wizdum, Shock and Awe to Shock and Gnaw. Are you having fun?
You bet. Are you?

Could you elaborate?
Somebody once asked James Joyce if his puns were trivial. And he responded, "They're at least quadrivial." Puns are a way of packing more than one meaning into something—and just about everything has more than one meaning. You and I can claim to agree on what a piece of art means, but we still don't really know if we are on the same wavelength or have the same taste in our mouths.

Some critics don't take your work seriously because of its playfulness. What do you have to say to these critics?
They're too serious. To be stuck on this planet without humor wouldn't be much fun. Those critics should take a cue from Arthur Schopenhauer, who believed that humor is our only divine trait. I've had people occasionally, maybe when the work is in the East Coast, say "I don't have the time for all this."

I thought that's what art was about. Something that would take time, that could take time. That you would come to again and again. You can't have it all just like that. In this world today, the electronic instantaneousness, is we don't have any patience. You know everything about art supposedly. There's no time for contemplation or delving into yourself or reflection or whatever. You have to know what it's for, what it's worth and whether it matters or not. And somebody else is telling you that rather than you deciding for yourself. Actually, I think the Midwest has a stronger sense of itself, less buffeted by trends and fads and things that happens on the Coasts. People make up more of their own mind about what's of value, what attracts them rather than hiring a curator to get me all the latest important stuff.

You're primarily described as a West Coast artist, but would you say that growing up in the Midwest influenced you?
Yes. Every place I've gone, I spent a winter back on the east coast, '67 and '68, had a big impact on me. I think, if you're open to some degree or at least believe you are that you can't help but have the wherever you are have some kind of impact or teach you something or show you something that you hadn't known before. So yes, the West Coast has definitely had an effect on me, like I said that winter back East did too.

You've said that you like to tug on the beard of someone important.
Well, yes, a little bit. Just like I need to be tugged on occasionally, I think we all do. We're pretty much filled up with our self importance, and I quoted Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who's the one who established the Zen Center in San Francisco, and he does a series of lectures, which have been put into a book called "Beginner's Mind." The opening statement of the book says, you must keep the beginner's mind, because in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities and in the expert's, few. And we're living with the crush of that around us.

After all is said and done, and you see 50 years of your work displayed here at the Smithsonian, how does that feel?
Feels wonderful. I feel humbled and deeply honored that the Smithsonian would take on this task. So I'm just very grateful. It's pretty marvelous to have been dealt with in this way. One of my neighbors, he used to be on the East Coast, he now has as little art gallery or something. I saw him recently and his eyes were about the size of saucers. "The Smithsonian?" he says "is doing your show." "I'm going to come back." And so, I just couldn't be happier.

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