- The Washington Times - Friday, August 12, 2005

Walk into William T. Wiley’s exhibit of prints at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and you enter a tragicomic wonderland. You’ll see an aging Mickey Mouse playing a harmonica in one print, men in dunce caps occupying another and bizarre-looking actors in still another.

Outrageous characters such as these, accompanied by equally outrageous texts, people Mr. Wiley’s challenging “Current Evince: Selected Prints by William T. Wiley From the Smithsonian American Art Museum,” a selection of 41 prints culled from the California artist’s 2003 gift of 75 prints and drawings to the Smithsonian.

The show’s enigmatic images highlight the artist’s uneasiness about America’s future. They brood about nuclear fallout, political sleaziness, cryogenics and, of course, war.

However, don’t despair at deciphering the artist’s obtuse visual and verbal language: Art history provides parallels such as, for example, the 15th- and 16th-century Flemish artist Hieronymous Bosch, one of Mr. Wiley’s biggest influences. Bosch mixed bizarre images for absurd worlds just as Mr. Wiley, 67, uses alter egos, dunces’ caps and mysterious maps to represent what he considers a similarly mad universe.

In the especially puzzling “Blind Mickey’s Blues,” a 1997 lithograph illustrating cryogenics, the artist confronts the burgeoning controversial practice of freezing near-death bodies, here Walt Disney’s, playing on the urban legend about the animation studio creator being cryogenically preserved. (Mr. Disney, who died Dec. 17, 1966, was actually cremated.) Reached by telephone at his Marin County, Calif., studio, Mr. Wiley says he marvels at this kind of technology — and at the notion that people believe they’ll be brought back to life by future medical discoveries.

His skepticism about such far-out technology is expressed in the lyrics he wrote to accompany “Mickey”: “Now somewhere in the hills of California/Deep underground in a stainless container of liquid nitrogen/Walt Disney’s body can be found/He’s waitin’ for the resurrection, and he hopes it’s comin’ soon…”

Humorous social commentary like this is also central to the 1983 color lithograph “Three Mile Island, Three Years Later” and the enormous 1989 color etching “Now Who’s Got the Blueprint?”

Mr. Wiley, who says he’s always meditating on the threat of mankind’s nuclear annihilation, was horrified by that possibility during the “Three Mile Island” accident. He represents that horror here by placing a fanlike map over a partly burned furry animal below. He puts a desolate landscape in the center — to show what could have happened “three years later” — with the plant’s three towers, an “all-seeing eye” and frightened-looking moons behind.

The artist is clearly preoccupied with what he perceives as America’s fatal attraction to nuclear power. He indicates this with such words as “Glowing Accounts” embedded in the print.

It’s not always easy to decipher these sorts of symbols, the ultimate inspiration for which the artist traces to the Zen philosophy that he absorbed as a student in San Francisco in 1957. His multilayered symbols include dunces’ hats, mysterious maps, his alter egos and musical notes. Exhibit labels would have helped in interpreting the artist’s meanings (although there is a free brochure). For example, as gallery owner Marsha Mateyka explained, dunce caps signify both wizards and idiots in Mr. Wiley’s imaginative world.

If this seems weird and incomprehensible, think of our old friend Mr. Bosch. Like Mr. Wiley, whose world is threatened with nuclear and environmental havoc, the earlier artist confronted a universe of fire and brimstone, good and evil, suffering and torture.

Things haven’t changed much, have they?

WHAT: “Current Evince: Selected Prints by William T. Wiley From the Smithsonian American Art Museum”

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue at 17th Street NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, until 9 p.m. Thursdays, closed Mondays and Tuesdays, through Sept. 12.

TICKETS: $8 adults, $6 seniors and U.S. military personnel, $4 students with current ID, $3 member guests, free for members and children under 12, “pay as you wish” Thursday after 5 p.m.

PHONE: 202/639-1700

WEB SITE: www.corcoran.org

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