- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

Like his dada ancestors, the idiosyncratic California artist William T. Wiley wants to show a culture gone mad. Dadaists such as Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters expressed their disgust with World War I and peoples' eagerness to destroy each other. For example, Duchamp showed his rage by painting a mustache on a photo of Leonardo's iconic "Mona Lisa"

The "dude ranch dada" of Mr. Wiley, 65, shares some of Duchamp's subversive wit, if not his radical aesthetic experimentalism. In his "New Watercolors: 'My Country, Is It Thee?' " now at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery, Mr. Wiley evokes the raw grief provoked by September 11 in a series of powerful visual metaphors created right after the terrorist attacks and during the following fall of 2002. Against the background of military conflict in Iraq, his sly but heartfelt pacifism is particularly pungent.

Consider his "The Choice Is Sample." Dominating the foreground is a gigantic yellow war machine, reminiscent of a medieval war cannon, which has been positioned to fire on vaguely Islamic-looking spiraling pyramidal towers scattered among the arid mountains in the background. A horde of banner-waving soldiers marches toward the enemy towers. Lest there be any doubt about Mr. Wiley's didactic intentions, he provides an accompanying text reading, in part: "& So … MODERN WAR FARE A SIGHT TO BEHOLD … SURE SOME INNOCENTS WILL SUFFER THAT'S JUST HOW IT IS … TRUE … PEACE JUST ISN'T WORKING. ITS TIME for US, THE TRUE AND JUST ONES WHO HOLD THE TRUTH AND THE BEST INTENTIONS … TO ARRANGE THINGS AS WE SEE FIT … NOW WITH OUR CHEMICAL FOOD CANNON WE CAN ARTificially INSINUATE WHAT WE WISH. GO WITH US OR NOT …

"First strike NOW? you bet!! NOW that we CAN READ THE future."

"The Choice Is Sample," a title typical of Mr. Wiley's punning style, is set in a distant, mythical past suitable for the kind of moral parable Mr. Wiley intends. The towers, vulnerable to the approaching army, are placed one before the other in receding perspective, implying that there is no end in principle to war. He hints that the invading soldiers are just a fraction of a much larger, perhaps symbolically infinite, supply waiting in the wings outside of the picture frame. And the preindustrial millstone wheels of the cannon emphasize the age-old history of military conflict. (Mr. Wiley's signature Roman numerals that spell out "9" and "18" mean he drew and painted "Sample" seven days after September 11.)

In another watercolor, "Dragon the Deafened Drum," the artist coils a cheerful green dinosaur around a patriotic-looking red, white and blue drum, writing, "& so as the deafened drum of war came into view … I learn too that we are coming off an orange alert … going to yellow alert … (still vigilant … but a little more relaxed)." Here, in none-too-subtle terms, the artist is warning of the dangers inherent in the military symbols of a robust American patriotism.

Mr. Wiley says he also works with symbols he can't explain. "I started drawing a topped-off, pyramidallike structure in the 1960s. I liked it, and have used it since, for its mystery. It could be a tombstone, casket, coffin or weapon. It's an image of power that I can't quite pin down," he says. In the Mateyka exhibit, it appears in "Pre-Imptive Strike" it's meaning is obvious and "The Last Civil War Vet" a humorous take on an old codger encased in a dual weapon-tombstone.

Mr. Wiley, recently in town for the exhibit's opening, has rough-hewn looks and a gentle manner that belie stereotypes of loud and unwashed West Coast far-left activists. He's one of Northern California's most prominent artists and founded the neo-dada funk art movement in San Francisco and Davis in the 1960s. He lives in Marin County, Calif. and is a longtime professor of art at the University of California at Davis. Every major U.S. museum of modern art collects his art, as do some abroad.

He transforms deeply felt concerns of mankind's future through quirky and compelling works of art. Don't be fooled by their wry humor. His cry, "My Country, Is It Thee?" hit this reviewer in the gut.

WHAT: "New Watercolors: 'My Country, Is It Thee?' "

WHERE: Marsha Mateyka Gallery, 2012 R St. NW

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays through April 5


PHONE: 202/328-0088

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