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The Galleries

Venice

December 11, 1987|MARLENA DONOHUE

Back in the old days, the upstart William Wiley thawed Minimalism, taking the deep freeze out of cool art with goony Surrealist figures, narrative, social comment--those nasty taboos the purists had worked so hard to excise. Now a seasoned Wiley creates sumptuous, large-scale paintings, handsome drawings and a couple of sculptures. They fuse bizarre free-associative thoughts, social observations and puns with amazing draftsmanship that moves seamlessly from the cartoony to the sublime.

Wiley shapes large areas of bare canvas to look like the arc, the cone, the tendril, some of his favorite symbols. Crammed with knotty skeins of self-propelled, penciled diagonals, squares and squiggles, they mock the look of sea maps, charts or diagrams. Close up, the web of graphite delivers unexpected treasures: small passages of realism (a mysterious keyhole, a farcical-looking fellow kneeling as if to be knighted, the face of an sea otter), abstract calligraphy and strings of Wiley's famous narrative non sequiturs take on cumulative poignancy. Pencil work is embedded into fields of abstract daubs that coalesce into a hapless trout, a conch, a fiery planet reeling in primordial slush.

Smaller watercolor drawings are, as always, immaculate and queerly autobiographical, capturing sun-drenched, cheerfully forbidding places where everyday objects--a dog house, an easel, spooky vines--exude all the hallucinatory charm of Oz. Art like this is not spawned in Dorothy's Kansas, only in California where the unlikely bedfellows of maverick individualism, the optimism of the "give-peace-a-chance" days and Zen theosophy coexist happily in art and in life. (L.A. Louver Gallery, 77 Market St., to Jan. 2.)

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