Wednesday, 6 January 2010

American Design and William T. Wiley

The Renwick Gallery had its Crafts Invitationals, showing four design artists, and a new acquisition in the Gallery caught my eye. Since I can usually photograph permanent collection objects, the new work is here. It is Karen LaMonte (b. New York City, 1967, resides Prague, Czech Republic), Reclining Dress Impression with Drapery, 2009, glass, Gift of the James Renwick Alliance and Colleen and John Kotelly. A life-size cast glass form that suggests the enclosed figure in some detail (note the nipples and muscles in the torso), but is hollow, is impressive technically and visually evocative. Its monumentality suggests the Parthenon reliefs to me, although the label calls it "more playful than political; frilly straps and a firm hip exaggerate the femininity of a woman conspicuously absent." LaMonte studied glass casting in Prague; after months of mold making works like this one take 40 days to cool.

Of the four artists exhibited, I guess I was amused by Mark Newport's knit costumes and a video of him knitting to the William Tell Overture. The ceramic artist Christyl Boger's glazed white (but also a bit beige) earthenware nude figures, some with gold luster decoration, and each with an inflated pool toy, suggest oversize 18th century porcelains updated. The pool toys in a sense seem analogous to the baskets of flowers or cute animals the 18th-century figures carry, symbols of leisure and pleasure. Appropriately, the figures are expressionless and a bit vapid, lovely bodies with not much worthwhile to do. That's what I thought till I read the label: "Overall the characters exude vulnerability. Their vacant facial expressions suggest introspection or self-involvement. Lost in their interior dialogues, they seem ill-equipped to cope with the reality that surrounds them. They give the impression they are uncomfortable with themselves and their environment and their discomfort extends to the viewer." I don't know who writes these labels, but this one seems to be working out some issues through these sculptures, or perhaps the writer misinterpreted what the artist says about her work.

The New York Times had a very good review of the William T. Wiley (What's It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect) show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, recognizing his amazing facility with watercolor, his extensive use of text and puns, the combination of complex charcoal drawing and brash thick paint on his canvases, the fact that Wiley is not as celebrated today as he was in the 1970s, and the appropriateness of a contemporary reappraisal of his work. I would say he was still highly regarded and prized in the 1980s; that was when I helped purchase a painting for the museum at the University of Texas. When I arrived in the Kansas City area in 1988, Wiley was widely collected and exhibited here, and several of the notable works in the SAAM show are from Kansas City private collections. He showed regularly at the Morgan Gallery in Kansas City and came to Lawrence for the Lawrence Lithography Workshop. I was delighted to meet him at several of his Kansas City openings and other occasions. At one of them he sang a little song about Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse that made everyone laugh. At the next opening, a while later, he sang it again. And again the next time. After that I didn't go to his exhibitions any more. The Smithsonian exhibition includes a video loop of Wiley singing that song.

Wiley is a remarkable watercolorist, able to create dense mosaics of color in complex compositions. I'd always thought of him with a wry sense of humor; his Mr. Unnatural character seemed a parody of himself, not to take himself, or his work, too seriously. I used to enjoy hunting for the puns in the paintings and works on paper, cringing and laughing at them at the same time. Often his work was impossible to untangle, which made it more enticing. But the Smithsonian show focuses on the works that address social and political issues, referring to Wiley's anger and removing what I had always thought was a lightness about him (the Mickey song doesn't seem funny even the first time in the exhibition video). The 1982 sculpture "Boo Dada Bar BQ" captures that sense of humor, mocking California new-age Buddhists. Wandering through Wiley paintings, and often getting lost, one finds a little politics, a little literature and art history, some enigma, some great drawing and some powerful painting.

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