What’s It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect

What's It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect edited by Joann Moser. University of California Press. Paperback, 228 pages. $39.

The cover of What's It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect

Inspired by a low-key dadaism, California artist William T. Wiley has been making densely allusive, humorously inflected paintings, sculptures, and films for fifty years. The vividly cartoonish, Rube Goldberg–like imagery in Wiley’s creations serves a very literary sensibility—his paintings, prints, and watercolors tell stories and employ wordplay. A series of drawings and watercolors from the early ’80s addresses environmental topics like acid rain and Three Mile Island, as well as overtly political themes such as nuclear proliferation, apartheid, and capital punishment. The tension between hectic composition, intensified by a carnival-colored palette, and socially alert content is a seductive one: We are drawn to gleefully decipher these intricate realms before we realize their darker import. But Wiley has broad interests—in medieval painting, in travel, and in maps. Many works concern Columbus, an early group of paintings positing the explorer as being “rerouted.” Meridian Moons Overwhatarewe, 2006, evidences the artist’s fascination with comics and verbal dislocation. Its moon is reminiscent of the one in Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, or even that in Georges Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la lune, yet Wiley also depicts the moon as blank, or nearly so—the lines of earthly maps discernable on its surface. Viewer and what’s viewed are often unstable positions for Wiley—this world and other ones changing places, sometimes for fun, always to make us see differently.