Q and A: William Wiley

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

William T Wiley
A retrospective of artist William T. Wiley's work is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. SAAM

For 50 years, artist William T. Wiley has approached serious topics with wit and a sense of the absurd. A retrospective of his work, entitled "What's It All Mean," is currently on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The title of the exhibition notwithstanding, if you were to look back on your career, what does it all mean?
What does it all mean? It means it's been pretty wonderful, despite what I may think when I'm in the studio struggling over a particular piece. It's pretty great to come and see this much back, this much time and these many images that I've been involved with, or they've been involved with me, or whatever.

Where did you get your start? What was the point at which you decided to become an artist?
I decided early on when I was a kid that I was going to be an artist of some kind. One of my first heroes was Fred Harmon who drew a comic book called Red Ryder and the Little Beaver. Cowboy theme. [Harmon] was an actual rancher and sometimes in the back of the comic book, there would be photos of him on the ranch or in his studio, but through the window you could see cows and horses and cowboys. When I was 10 we sold the little farm [in Indiana], I had a couple horses. Cowboys, that was an early urge, as was drawing. At 10, we sold the farm and my dad bought a house trailer and we moved out west. The change and all that came when I was in high school and I met James McGrath, a young teacher, I think it was his first teaching assignment, and he opened up the broader art world to me.

Not many artists open up a show at a major museum with a game of pinball?
Yeah, probably nobody. Actually, the man whose machine it is and whose machines he donated for the project because it wasn't just one; we did a number of them, all the same basically. He was a collector of pinball machines. Richard Lang at Electric Works Gallery said one time—he was looking at all the pinball machines—"What would it be like to have an artist design a pinball machine?" Oh, that's an interesting idea.

So Richard and I are neighbors; we live in San Geronimo. He came to me and said, "How would you like to design a pinball machine?" I said, "Sure. Why not?" And so that's where it began. This was a particular kind called North Star. So we stripped it back to the bare essentials, and I started thinking up things to put on it. I myself was not a heavy pinball player as a kid. They were in all the cafes, and I would go in a cafe and my parents, still eating, would say, "Well, here go play the pinball machine," and they'd give me a quarter or a dime or something. And so I played a few times, but I was not hoping that somehow a pinball machine would come into my life, and I'd design it.

When this occurred, it was just a great opportunity. Why not? Give it a try and see what happens. What it did make me aware of was the vast world of people who are involved in pinball machines. And there are. It's like a cult. There are people that collect them. There's a man in Oakland who has a hundred machines in a warehouse, and I've never been there, but apparently you can give him ten bucks and play all day. In fact, since I got involved in the project, there was an exposition at San Rafael's [Marin] Civic Center, which Frank Lloyd Wright designed, where it was an exposition of pinball machines. You step into this big building, and it spilled pinball machines of all varieties, all kinds going from to the very earliest up to the most recent. Tons of people in there playing. It's like discovering this whole other group that collects garbage can lids or something. It's just, my god, I didn't know this world existed. So, that's how it came into my life.

Walking through the galleries, one can pick up on many influences, Bosch, Bruegel, Duchamp, N.C. Wyeth… How do these masters inform your work?
For me as an artist at different times, these various artists have become important for one reason or another. I had a friend Holbrook Teter who worked for the Quakers and was doing a lot of social work. He went to the area around Chernobyl after the accident and came back and brought me his notes on people living in that zone that had been heavily irradiated and what their problems and concerns and worries were. And it was so devastating and at the same time moving. I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to give that information back in some way.

I tried a couple things and nothing that I did in terms of trying to illustrate some examples he gave in there satisfied me. I kind of didn't know what to do. I have a book on Bosch. I flipped it open and there was a detail of The Temptation of Saint Anthony. There was a little village burning. And it made me think of Grebeny, one of the towns he went to and I thought this is the way I'll be able to work the notes, by using Bosch. And then that went into Bruegel. It seemed that their images were more appropriate, although I changed them. Like, the burning village is a tiny detail in Bosch and I blew it up to a different size. So, those people, Duchamp, H.C. Westermann, at different times, almost like a ghost in the night, appear and you get inspiration from them.

I saw what I thought was a reference to Picasso's Guernica in that piece back there. I thought that it was just a parallel, with the village and what you were trying to say. Is that part of your thinking at all?
It's the same idea. It happens to be Chernobyl not Guernica. It's right out of the same theme, the same impulse to somehow represent some of these horrors that we have created for ourselves. One of the stories I remember in there, there was a man who said that he knew things were not so good, but he still foraged in the forest for berries and food and things like that, mushrooms. And I said, "But don't you know that all those things are heavily radiated?" He said, yes he knew that, and when he said that, he blushed. He was embarrassed about the fact that even though he knew that it was poisonous, he was still out there foraging. And, there's a piece that's not in the show called We Eat The Berries and Blush. Some of it was hard, I wasn't trying to make a direct translation, but I was trying to make an association because horror is too subtle, it's too unevident, the more macabre you get with the imagery, the more you start to lose what is really the essence of the material.

There's so much timely relevance to the paintings and other works, Chernobyl, the death of Amadou Diallo. Is there a key to understanding your messages?
Have empathy.

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.

You have referred to Smithsonian exhibit as an archeological site. Why?
It's like an archaeological site because everything is not immediately obvious. There can be one bone sticking out, but you dig a little bit and discover more. I think if you give it time, my work will talk to you more—and the more you dig in, the more you might be able to uncover.

Does your art have a mind of its own?
Perhaps. Am I doing it or is it doing me.

Meridian Moons Overwhatarewe, 2006. William T. Wiley. John Berggruen Gallery / SAAM
A retrospective of artist William T. Wiley's work is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. SAAM

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