Retrospectives of two vastly different artists at the Berkeley Art Museum

  • by Kevin Mark Kline, Director of Promotions
  • Friday March 26, 2010
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Teeming with ideas, artist William T. Wiley's mind is a crowded intersection where politics, literature and art history meet. An encyclopedia of cultural references and crosscurrents inform his art, which is packed with not-so-subtle though heartfelt political commentary on everything from the insanity of war and the intractable issue of global warming to the Chernobyl nuclear debacle; responses to the work of sundry artists as varied as Van Gogh, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Hieronymous Bosch and R. Crumb; and an abundance of wordplay, puns and memos from the artist's psyche that take the form of text scrawled across his canvases. One may need to take a Rosetta stone along to the Berkeley Art Museum's What's it All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect in order to decipher the 80-some sculptures, large-scale paintings, watercolors, assemblages, films, conceptual projects, and a functioning, custom-designed pinball machine, that represent a half-century of Wiley's output from 1959 onward.

An admirer of Nathan Oliveira, Wiley, a tall, lanky, soft-spoken man who began his career in the Bay Area and still lives here, studied at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 1960s, where at the time, Abstract Expressionism was in its ascendancy. Later, he taught at UC Davis, whose faculty included the late Robert Arneson, Manuel Neri and Wayne Thiebaud, among others. Bruce Nauman was one of Wiley's students.

Wiley's early oil paintings such "Flag Song (1959)," which incorporates a pop-culture, red-white-and-blue motif suggestive of the American flag, infused with an underlying, darkly enigmatic strain, or the abstract, cartoonish assembly of gray pavement and clown-yellow signage in "Columbus Rerouted #1 (1961)," one of three big canvases inspired by road construction in North Beach, signal a less cacophonous style anchored in deep waters, as does the powerful "Grebeny - The Burning Village After Bosch (1994)." The town, engulfed by an inferno, represents Wiley's outrage at the Chernobyl meltdown.

His work, often crammed with symbols and narrative, reads like a map of uncharted worlds. While that sounds (and is) intriguing, composition and restraint take a back seat to intellectual curiosity, with mixed results. A 1960s gestalt and an "everything is everything," Zen-like spiritualism translate here into everything but the kitchen sink. "Hinge (1992)," for example, is a collision of pencil diagrams, words and blobs of paint squirted from tubes, and "Evolution, the Eclipse and the Devils in Kansas (1999)" is a conglomeration of the disparate subjects in its title with a dominant red devil playing violin and riding herd at the center.

Like a novelist in love with his flowery prose, Wiley could have done with a ruthless editor, or barring that, a traffic cop to bring a semblance of order and contain a level of chaos that visitors will find either captivating or frustrating. One yearns for understatement and a structure to impose on the artist's unbridled vitality and anarchic, fertile imagination. Without it, multiple visual and textual elements compete for viewers' souls, preventing them from fully entering his world.

Inner life

An artist on the opposite pole from Wiley in terms of opportunity, training and education, James Castle seems to have dwelled inside a silent vacuum that secretly housed a prodigiously rich inner life. Castle, a self-taught outsider artist in the vein of Martin Ramirez, the Mexican migrant who spent most of his life in a mental institution making art out of magazine images, mashed potatoes and spit, was born profoundly deaf, raised in rural Idaho and died in obscurity.

Deemed "uneducable" and unable to read, write, sign or lip-read, Castle lived in extreme isolation, his talent forged from deprivation. His drive to create organized his experience and helped him communicate through a potent language of his own devise.

For his tonal drawings of landscapes, "dream houses," local streets and buildings, Castle dipped sharp sticks or twigs into a graphite-ink mixture of soot and saliva. These images, like a freeze frame in film, or a note in a musical score, stop time and record the rhythm of life only he could hear. The exhibition also displays Castle's handmade boxes and bound textbooks that alternate between drawings and text, either drawn or taken from publications and discarded packaging. Utilizing a basic color palette, cardboard, crayons, color washes, found materials and used paper, Castle fashioned cardboard constructions of animal or bird shapes from the barnyard, and human figures outfitted in hats and coats, with special attention to buttons.

Although Castle's creations do have the seductive directness and simplicity associated with children's artwork, they're the product of a confident imagination and an active mind. Primitive yet sophisticated, he makes relationships between shapes and objects - whether they're figures with human bodies and dresser drawers for heads, strutting roosters or a long-legged bird with a body made of tar paper - that may initially appear incongruent, but, upon further examination, have an implicit logic.

Castle transformed silence and solitude into a populated, imaginatively fleshed-out universe that visitors can get lost in and won't wish to leave.

What's it All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect, through July 18; James Castle: A Retrospective, through April 25 at Berkeley Art Museum. For info: (510) 642-0808, or