LOS ANGELES — A well-curated exhibition is a fantastic art lesson, and you can find a shining example at the Parker Gallery if you hurry before the current group show ends August 6. Nothing to do for William T. Wiley is two things at once: a roller derby of irreverent and energetic ideas and a serious exposure to the art historical significance of Northern California.
The Southern California art scene is generally equated with the West Coast’s contribution to mid-to-late 20th-century American art, that is, deftly wiping the rug out from under the high-minded New York minimalism with a blend of conceptualism and humor. Well-known names in this field are John Baldessari, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy and Ed Ruscha. But further north in the Bay Area, there was tremendous energy, and a good part of it emanated from William T. Wiley, a founder of the radio movement who taught at UC Davis in the 1960s and died last year.
Wiley is represented in this exhibition with six artworks, including sculptures and works on paper, reflecting the breadth of his invention. My personal favorite is Allan’s Book of the Month Club (1966), in which the artist, a famous Punster, has built a wooden-handled war club whose business end is a book with a nasty point. I never joined a book club for fear that sitting in those circles would feel exactly like being hit in the head with a club, more or less like Wiley’s, so this sculpture spoke to me immediately.
A stream of humor, often involving wordplay, flows from Wiley and into many of the 47 works presented. Jimmie Durham has a great piece called Scruples (2014) featuring two small stones displayed in a bell jar with a handwritten note explaining the Latin root scruples refers to a rock in your shoe that causes you to hesitate or change direction. As good a definition of art as any, great art can be unnerving and make us reconsider our values and even our lives. Bruce Nauman, a master of irritation and a student of Wiley, embraces his teacher’s playful spirit in seven works on paper, all untitled, from 1968. One is a simple list of phrases, each linking to the previous one in a meandering chain of associations which Nauman finally finds its way Check in to squareto give up and on to jerk offthen take offand finally add. A drawing on the right shows Nauman following a similar visual link: an overhand knot becomes the artist HC Westermann’s ear. These works are not just a window into Nauman’s process of exploration, but a decent demonstration of how thought experiments with currents of consciousness underlie so much great art.
Wiley was a pioneer of text-based art. Tension on the Cable (1972) is a fine example of his approach. A cute watercolor depicts a large branch supporting a cable whose function is far from clear, but may involve a rope swing over a creek. Three italic lines written below masquerade as caption but have no clear relation to anything above; they are just silly babble that encourages the reader to keep the rhymes and game flowing like the rippling stream in the picture.
Subsequent artists have indeed maintained Wiley’s rhythm, including those who were never his students such as Ree Morton, Sue Williams and Amy Yao, all of whom are featured on this show. I love everything Morton has ever done and am as excited as ever by her drawing “Untitled (Woodgrain, Flower Parts)” (ca. 1974) in which she sketches and labels the reproductive organs of a flower and leaves it up to the viewer to to read all of this. Flowers produce fruit and this exhibition opened my eyes to the ripe harvest of Wiley’s legacy.
Nothing to do for William T. Wiley continues through August 6 at Parker Gallery (2441 Glendower Avenue, Los Angeles, California). The exhibition was organized by the gallery.