The purpose which guided him was not impossible, but it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality…
–Jorge Luis Borges, The Circular Ruins (1940)
I didn’t know Wily; I never met him and sadly I never will. I only know what I saw in his studio: the sculptures, tools, notes, books, and photographs that have been preserved as they were at the time of his death ten years ago. These, and my own personal set of correlations, are the paths that I took to write about Wily. He was a man who dreamed and sculpted so many figures into reality.
“My workshop is like a transfer plant,” Wily said, and his ideas came from close and far. The context of Galicia and the natural areas around his studio provided material and inspiration. But Wily also looked farther afield, and his periods abroad lend his work another dimension. The lively coarseness of his wood sculptures parallel the agitated surfaces of German contemporaries like Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, woodcuts by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Ernst Barlach, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and even the frenetic choreography of the experimental dancer Mary Wigman. These artists were ‘dancing on the volcano,’ an expression used to describe the tumultuous but creative interwar period of Germany’s Weimar Republic. Wily shared tools and techniques with these German Expressionists; they carve with bodies, chisels, and wood. They also share a view of the human figure as a register of extremes. Sketchbook drawings and footage of Wily working show a delightfully brusque artist of immediate, decisive actions. Like the German artists, Wily created in a reactionary language that rejects academic notions of finish and beauty.
The mask-like faces and monumental bodies of Wily’s wood sculptures have something universal in them that open associations with other places and times. I think of Chilean chemamulles, for example, and of totem poles from the North American Pacific Northwest. These wood carvings utilize earthly and spiritual imagery for a variety of purposes including commemoration, mourning, and ridicule. Their complex mix of signifiers remind me of Wily’s “army” of figures, who he said each tell a personal story. Wily found his material in the fallen tree trunks and branches of local natural areas. When he finished sculpting, Wily often installed his work outdoors; photographic documentation shows his creations installed in fields streams, and forests. In his “Outsiders” (2005) interview, Wily discusses the special qualities that his works take on in natural outdoor light. Like chemamulles and totem poles, Wily’s wood pieces’ shapes never loose their connection to the trunk of a single tree, and in turn, to nature itself.
Pablo Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) was controversial for a variety of reasons, but a main one was that it pairs white European bodies with geometric, African mask-like faces. Wily copied the painting at some point, but his version shows faces that cohere with their bodies. His other wood panel carvings show men doing sports and women in bikinis. The images seem to be taken directly from mass media. Reproduced in the rigidity of wood and altered very little, these pieces make the visuals of popular culture their central subject. But Wily’s large wooden sculptures swap representation for anthropomorphism; their incongruous face-body pairings, gender shifts, geometric forms, and mask-like heads pay tribute to Picasso’s painting. They also reflect the variety of source materials I found in Wily’s studio, which included books about ancient Mexican art, Henry Moore, Sandro Botticelli, comics, and even Sesame Street. I also see Wily in artists working today: in Aaron Curry’s spray painted, jagged forms, Thomas Houseago’s strong-but-tender figures, Josh Smith’s clunky, funky ceramics, Steinar Haga Kristensen’s vigorous, layered spectacles, and Cody Ledvina’s multimedia quest for whatever is most surprising and most true.
Letters are the building blocks of written language. They are stacked like toy blocks in Wily’s wood text sculptures from the 1990s. If they were reordered, the jumbles might compose words. Scrambled as they are, the viewer notices the letters’ sculptural qualities, and the alphabet pieces seem more like units of sound. I am reminded of the letter A in Gastone Novelli’s (1925-1968) work. The main character in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001) explains that after Novelli was jailed and tortured during World War II, “his main subject, depicted again and again in different forms and compositions, was the letter A in ranks of scarcely legible ciphers, rising and falling in waves like a long-drawn-out scream” (27). Wily’s text pieces make bright noises in comparison; word play is one of his specialties. He was a poet before he began making visual art, and his titles are slips of wit and grace. Spoken and written words, notes, books, strains of music, paths that cross, a clutching of hands- these are the palimpsest that comprise a life.
Night and Day
Wily kept an anthology of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry on top of a bookshelf near his studio door. It seems that he returned to the book often: its cover has fallen off, and there are annotations and photos of the artist with a young woman tucked inside. A photo of Wily’s A Poe (1992) shows an A-shaped wood sculpture sitting in the middle of an inky stream, like a chunk of language that materialized spontaneously. The piece is a dedication to the American writer, who published 17 poems that begin this way- To Helen, To Margaret, To Octavia, (A Helen, A Margaret, A Octavia) etc- it was his most frequent title. But there are also two Poe poems that begin with the letter A: A Dream (1827) (Un Sueño) and A Dream Within A Dream (Un sueño dentro de un sueño) (1849). “Night is the most creative moment that I have,” Wily said, and dreams happen at night.
A poster of downtown Manhattan hangs above Poe’s book of poetry. New York reappears in a large photo of the artist in front of its skyline and in a newspaper clipping about Manhattan on his other studio walls. Wily traveled to New York in 2004, and I visited the city that same year. I tayed in Manhattan directly across the street from where the Twin Towers had stood. I remember experiencing a sort of nightmare-vertigo as I looked down at that supermassive black hole from my hotel window. So it is true, I thought, it did happen. It was a fraught time; the presence of the Towers’ absence filled the city. Surely Wily also saw this place where the earth, and civilization itself, gave way.
As I left Wily’s studio in the dark spring rain, I saw a pasture on a far away hill about the same size as that void in Manhattan that was covered in an impossibly bright light. It seemed like a sign from somewhere else. And when I looked back at Wily’s studio door, I saw it: a big, mosaic sun.
…That holy dream- that holy dream,
While all the world were chiding.
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
A lonely spirit guiding.
What through that light, thro’ storm and night,
So trembled from afar-
What could there be more purely bright
In Truth’s day-star?