Author: Sartorius, Tara Cady
Date published: November 1, 2010
There is something disappointing about life. It is messy and out of control. It seems the more we try to put life in order, the more ordering there is to do. The more we seek explanations, the more confusing things become. Life's an impossible task. Maybe we should just give up.
Or, then again, we might as well keep trying. Might as well.
It's this conflict we all experience at times - the conflict of living somewhere between resignation and determination - that seems to be at the root of art by William T. Wiley (b. 1937), the artist responsible for the image you see to your right.
He's mostly associated with California's Bay Area, and the Funk Art movement of the 1960s and 70s, but when he was in his early teens, Wiley and his family spent several years on the move. Starting in his birthplace of Indiana, they moved to the state of Washington, then Texas, then California and then back to Washington. It was on those road trips and during the conversations in the car that Wiley began to absorb popular images from billboards and to play with words.
His high-school art teacher, Jim McGrath, encouraged Wiley to apply to art school. He landed in California's Bay Area, where he worked construction jobs during the summers to put himself through college and graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Wiley's imagery, titles and intent are entirely consistent. His pieces are open to multiple interpretations, they contain a slice or two of humor, they usually convey a message with social or political undertones, they can be irreverent, and they leave an unsettling feeling that the art has spilled out and stained our lives.
Look at Eerie Grotto? Okini. What do a funnel, two Asian folding fans, a chisel, a curled stump, a spray bottle, various paintbrushes, a yellow bucket, a hatchet, a box, a rolled-up painting, a slotted spoon, the silhouette of a kneeling figure, some driftwood, and other somewhat difficult to identify objects have in common?
According to Wiley, most of the objects were in his studio at the time he created his original watercolor, titled Your Own Blush & Flood (1982), upon which this woodblock print is based. He says lhe image consists of "the debris of various projects, some finished and some not. I'm remembering now there's a stump in there in the middle with a painting that didn't work out that 1 rolled up and cut back into it. I think there's an eye peering out of it so it's a real mishmash of things that were going on in the studio at the time."
It's hard to believe this is a woodblock print and one would be correct to study it in disbelief, because it was created in a very nontraditional manner. Crown Point Press, a very wellrespected print workshop in San Francisco, invited Wiley to submit a work of art to be translated by a professional printmaker in Japan into a full-color woodblock print.
Wiley selected his original watercolor, rolled it up into a mailing tube and sent it to the Shi-un-do Print Shop in Kyoto, Japan. Wiley says that when the printmaker, Tadashi Toda, received the original watercolor, he pulled it out of the mailing tube and then "cried for three weeks."
The watercolor was already complex. It must have been a daunting prospect for Toda to interpret the image both accurately and truthfully, yet in a completely different medium. Toda ended up using 26 cherry wood blocks and 85 different colors.
Rather than carve them all, Toda designed some of the "blocks" as collographs. He went to salvage shops to find pieces of antique silk, which he cut into shapes and glued to the surfaces of the wood. The old silk fibers had a special texture and absorbency that Toda carefully inked and printed to create mottled watercolor effects. The fine black lines were photomechanically reproduced.
This piece Gabeled "AP 18," meaning "the 18th Artist's Proof) is part of an edition of eight trial proofs, 20 artist's proofs and 200 final prints. After the prints were completed, the blocks were cancelled or destroyed. The production process was documented by Crown Point Press to authenticate the final pieces, which differentiates them from other mass-produced "prints" having far less value.
As for the quizzical title, Wiley explains: "I had just finished this watercolor and thought I'd use that for the matrix, which I did. And then when he had it prepared, we went over [to Japan] to see how it came out ... "
In this manner of printmaking, it is common practice for an artist to work most closely with technicians or artisans in the final stages of production to approve and develop the linai proofs and production of a print.
"And never having been to Japan before, and also not speaking Japanese, I asked Takada, who is Japanese and was one of the printers who worked with Kathan [referring to Kathan Brown, the founder and director of Crown Point Press], who went with us, to help with the language.
"I said, Takada, every morning after I finish breakfast, a Japanese lady comes in to clean up breakfast ... I don't know how to say "thank you" in Japanese.' And he says, 'Well you can say, eerygotto, [arigatol or you can say, okini, which is saying "thank you" in the local dialect.'
"So the next morning she came in after we were finished with breakfast and was cleaning everything up, and as she was about to be through with everything I said, okina! And she looked at me kind of strange and I said it again a couple of times, lowering over her, Okina, okina! and her eyes just got bigger and she just ran out of the room.
"And so when Takada got there he said, 'How's it goin'?' and I said, 'Well, I tried to thank the lady this morning, but she got upset and ran out of the room.' He says, Oh, what did you say?' I said, 'Like you said, okina.' He said, 'no, no, okinil - you were saying "the big ones."' So the title for the piece came out of that episode."
Eerie Grotto came from the Americanized, twisted sound of arigato, meaning "thank you" in Japanese. Okini came from the sound of "thank you" as it might be said in the part of Kyoto where Wiley was working. The question mark could denote his amusement with his story.
Translated, then, the title might mean "Thank You? Thank you," but that's only being literal to a fault. With such a dry translation, the nuances of the complicated artwork, the confusion of linguistic sounds and meaning, and Wiley's funny story of miscommunication would be completely lost. In the production of this image, Wiley really was navigating a somewhat eerie grotto.
Seeing comedy in life is often the saving grace in those awkward moments between embarrassment and confidence. Wiley, with his love of word play, saw the humor of the situation and made the most of it.
We all might as well.
Hmmnim ... Might as well. Might a swell. Mida's well. My does well.
Uh oh, it's catching!
Art educator, Tara Cady Sartorius, served as Curator of Education at the Montgomery (Ala.) Museum of Fine Arts for 21 years. Prior to receiving her master's degree in sculpture and art criticism, she taught art for 10 years in public elementary schools in California.