Not Too Near, Not Too Far
William T. Wiley
MASSIMODECARLO is pleased to present Not Too Near, Not Too Far, a duo exhibition by the pioneering artists Mike Henderson and William T. Wiley, curated by Dr. Francesca Wilmott. Following an initial encounter at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 1970, the two artists shared interwoven artistic trajectories. During their fifty-year friendship, they collaborated in music and on films and exchanged ideas related to painting, politics, teaching, and philosophy.
Embracing the experimental approach of the revered University of California, Davis art programme (Wiley taught at UC Davis from 1962 to 1973, and Henderson from 1970 to 2012), Henderson and Wiley freely used different materials and approaches to suit their needs. Both artists were sceptical of strict ideologies, preferring to forge individual artistic paths. Not Too Near, Not Too Far charts encounters and exchanges between them, particularly within each artist’s movements between figuration and abstraction. The exhibition’s title encapsulates their symbiotic but distinct artistic practices and is taken from Henderson’s 2017 painting of the same name.
Henderson was born in 1943 in Marshall, Missouri, in a town where Jim Crow laws continued to deny basic liberties to African American individuals. While he was growing up, Henderson was determined to ‘draw and write and play guitar’. He began displaying his paintings next to his shoe-shining stand at the local hotel and performing with his band, The Blues Men. ‘When I first heard blues, it was more than the sounds. The stories haunted me’, he recalls. Seeking greater personal and artistic freedoms, Henderson moved to California in 1965 and enrolled at SFAI, one of the few integrated art schools in the United States at the time.
Unlike the impassive individuals that populated paintings by artists like Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, or Elmer Bischoff who were associated with Bay Area Figuration, Henderson’s nightmarish imagery was a call to action. When a classmate described one of Henderson’s protest paintings as ‘West Coast Figurative’, he declared: ‘No, my figures don’t sit, they fight!’ In works like Untitled (c. 1967), Henderson used any means available—his hands, a palette knife, paint brushes—to layer, scrape, gouge, and rebuild intense images that expressed his experience of anti-Black violence in America. Swathes of gestural color in Henderson’s Untitled (c. 1967) and Wiley’s Untitled (1963) show each artist’s foundational training in and challenge to Bay Area Abstract Expressionism and Figuration at SFAI, which remained a central part of the school’s curriculum in the 1960s. In Wiley’s early painting, three black striations cut across a yellow field. Wiley’s gesture is echoed in the monstrous creatures that twist and turn within Henderson’s canvas. An evocative storyteller, Henderson’s cannibalistic imagery is the stuff of childhood nightmares. Untitled reflects a tumultuous period after Henderson arrived in San Francisco. The work confronts both his painful childhood memories from his upbringing in Marshall and the madness of the Civil Rights era.
The importance of line is paramount in Wiley’s work, referring to ‘line-fever’, the compulsion to trace graphic lines to their conclusion physically and metaphorically. Born in 1937 in Bedford, Indiana, Wiley grew up in rural Washington, where his high school art teacher encouraged him and two classmates - the artists Robert Hudson and William Allan - to pursue art degrees at the California School of Fine Arts (soon to become SFAI). Wiley quickly gained national recognition for his witty, anti-art sensibility. In need of fresh inspiration following his participation in the 1967 Whitney Annual and being pigeon-holed as a California ‘Funk’ artist, Wiley turned to watercolors. An unfashionable medium at the time, watercolor had less historical baggage than oil paint and granted Wiley freedom to develop his own line-dominated, figurative style. When Henderson too met an impasse in the 1970s, Wiley encouraged him to pursue watercolor, catalysing a period of experimentation across different media and novel treatments: burning, collaging and cutting canvases.
Wiley and Henderson often shared a visual language and conceptual concerns. The crucifix in both Wiley’s P.T.S.D Tires (2009) and Henderson’s Miss(1978) conveys both artists’ scepticism of organised religion, an idea also addressed in Wiley’s All Saints Ball (1977) and Henderson’s Heaven on Earth (2005). The tools of their crafts, palettes, and guitars emerge beneath layers of rubble and strewn materials. Miss (1978) features a gingham cloth, both reminiscent of the picnic tablecloths of Henderson’s rural upbringing, but also of the checkerboard pattern that Wiley often incorporated into his work. An orb shape recurs across the galleries, in Henderson’s Miss (1978), Chicken Fingers (1980), and Untitled (1981) and Wiley’s All Saints Ball (1977). Wiley introduced Henderson to ideas outlined in Zen philosophy such as circles of enlightenment and the concept that reality emerges from a void. Describing his painting Nothing Conforms (1978) - which, like All Saints Ball (1977), features an empty geometric form surrounded by a proliferation of objects - Wiley remarked: ‘Form is void, void is form. Nothing and something occupy the same space. . . the studio’. Over their long careers, both artists developed a complex visual lexicon comprising enigmatic messages, text, dualities, puns, and self-deprecating wit that do not neatly add up to a clear message.
Despite their different methods, neither artist ever stopped experimenting. Wiley and Henderson often performed blues music together - opening for the Grateful Dead on New Year’s Eve 1982 - and translated its improvisatory nature into pulsating, energetic canvases frequently scattered with musical references. Henderson’s material investigations in both sound and image led him to fully embrace abstraction. After a fire destroyed much of his work in 1985, Henderson faced an empty studio. From these limitations, he began again, drawing inspiration from his background in music: ‘In painting I have three primary colors Red, Yellow, Blue, also Black and White. In music I have one, four, five majors and minors’. Though Wiley never gave up figuration entirely, he developed a looser approach as he grew older. As Wiley’s mobility decreased during the last years of his life, moments of pure abstraction swept over canvases like Pacing the Feint (2015) and Thud Answer (2015). ‘For me,’ Henderson recently expressed - reflecting a sentiment he shared with Wiley - ‘it’s the richness in the limitations that enables me to search for the voice I need to express what I feel and find out what I didn't know existed’.
Mike Henderson: Here I Stand, a full-length documentary about the artist’s life, is currently being produced and directed by Ethan Wiley and Cheryl Haines for the FOR-SITE Foundation.