The New Britian Museum of American Art’s newest acquisition is the intriguing painting The War Your After Dürer by William T. Wiley. This contemporary masterpiece will return on view in the Introduction Gallery on the first floor following the Gala (May 1).
Over the last half-century, William T. Wiley has been producing unique and zany paintings, drawings, and assemblages in the West Coast Funk style. As a founding father of the movement, he rose to national attention in the 1970s when the storytelling aspects and personal symbolism contained in his artworks were trendy and highly sought after. Since then, he has continued to produce works that demonstrate not only his skill as an artist, but his keen wit and satiric imagination. He often reworks classic masterpieces and transforms them into ironic statements about the contemporary world. Wiley’s works all contain rich and complex symbolism, sometimes augmented by statements from the artist himself or calculated plays on words. The layers of pigment, humor, and deeper meaning create a puzzle for the viewer to explore and solve.
Wiley’s recent The War Your After Dürer is no exception. His appropriation of the famous 16th century engraving Knight, Death, and the Devil by Albrecht Dürer contains countless elements of wit, wisdom, symbolism, and mystery. Wiley actually painted a reproduction of the original Dürer on this canvas, then obscured it with erratic brushstrokes that comprise a black and white fog of modern warfare. Through the haze, key elements of the original underpainting, like the Devil’s horn (above) or the horse’s ears, are clearly visible. Others, such as the Knight himself or Death’s hourglass, are sunken deep into the miasma of war.
On top of the confusion, Wiley has left various messages in black marker. One at the upper left says, “at no extra cost to you…his dog & his clog & a knife.” Now on a scavenger hunt of sorts, the viewer finds two of the three objects drawn in black marker over the paint. Both the dog and the knife hover just over what appears to be a large dumbbell that rests at the bottom edge of the painting. This pristine element stands in stark contrast to the obscured masses of the work as a whole. A potent symbol, could this represent the gravity of war? With the inscription “nebula” and globe-like patterns, is this the weight of the world? Or is it a commentary on a dim-witted reason for going to war?
Connected to the dumbbell is the clog mentioned in Wiley’s note. Breaking into the third dimension, this element is actually a witty play on words. A clog, or “sabot” in French, would be thrown into the gears of machinery during the industrial revolution by French workers going on strike. These wooden shoes choked the machines and shut down entire factories. The role of clogs in the rebellions led to the coining of the term, “sabotage.” Wiley highlights this on his own clog, and furthers the joke by writing “clogged artery” on the shoe that also contains a starred head with a reference to the notorious writer Oscar Wilde, another globe sketch, and a skull and bones flag fashioned out of a tin canister.
These are just a few of the many symbolic and satirical elements of The War Your After Dürer. With this artwork, Wiley has created a powerful and contemporary anti-war statement that not only displays the destruction caused by war, but also incites the viewer to rise up against the components of modern war and fight for peace.
Can you think of any other artists that create work like Wiley does? Can you think of any other anti-war artists? What do you think about contemporary artists using the masters as a source of inspiration?