Bill Will’s ‘Fun House’: The political cartoon meets the contraption

The longtime Portland tinkerer artist gets us up-to-date with his madcap political devices

The Thanksgiving leftovers are cleared out of the fridge and perhaps you’ve almost forgotten your awkward conversations with random relatives. Before the fog of holiday merrymaking fully settles in, take a dark December afternoon to contemplate the “state of the union” as presented in Bill Will’s exhibition Bill Will: Fun House at the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery at Lewis & Clark College. The “fun” is short-lived, but the exhibition provides a clamoring commentary on the follies of contemporary American society.

Will is a long-time Portland artist. Though a painter by training, he is best known for his public art, sculpture, and installation work. Installations have allowed him to satisfy his attraction to small machines and contraptions. Sometimes they resemble Rube Goldberg-like devices, but Will’s often deliver a commentary on American life and times.

Bill Will, “War Machine”/Photo by Robert M. Reynolds

As suggested by the title, the exhibition is meant to hearken back to the tradition of the carnival attraction: an interactive exhibit in which the viewer activates the illusions. I’m not sure what it says about my upbringing, or me, but I’ve never been to a “funhouse.” I have an impression of distorted mirrors, menacing clowns, and squeaky mechanical projectiles. I associate the whole concept with a horror movie in which the (stupid) protagonist tries to escape a deranged killer by hiding in the carnival funhouse. Obviously, this ends with visions of knives and blood spatters. So perhaps I went into the exhibition with warped expectations.

Us: House of Mirrors is the viewer’s welcome into the space. The mirrored representation of the United States is fractured along state lines so rather than a single reflection, each state provides a different viewpoint. Made in 2010, in the middle of Obama’s first term, the piece is a humorous rebuttal to the soaring oratory of “no red states, no blue states, only the United States.” Like a mirror, national identity is based on perception, and perception is untrustworthy and sometimes garbled.

Bill Will, “Us: House of Mirrors”/Photo by Robert M. Reynolds

The show continues through an aluminum swing gate emblazoned with “Enter This Way.” Once “inside,” a sea of floating, collared white shirts with black ties twists in a fan-propelled breeze (Undertow, 2012). The effect is disorienting and it is only until I saw the taped path on the floor that I understood how to proceed. A combination of motion sensors and viewer-depressed buttons power the “attractions.” In The Rapture (Simulator) from 2016, mirrored disco-balls twirl while black pants ascend and descend to a generic “hallelujah” soundtrack. The proximity of the white shirts and black pants threw me off initially. I couldn’t figure out if they were meant to pair with one another or not. Why were the evangelists shirtless? Do evangelists usually wear black ties? Was there something sinister in shirtless evangelists and pantless conformists? What is the association with black ties? Don’t politicians wear red ties or blue ties? Are black ties associated with evangelists? I think my only association with black ties is restaurant servers.

This ambiguity, however, isn’t sustained. The bulk of the objects in the show are straightforward. In order to activate War Machine (2017), the viewer must press a button labeled “start a war.” The button sets off a phalanx of army men across an arched Erector Set bridge. The soldiers advance, propelled by a strip of film, while the ironing board bases shake. The shadow of the whole contraption on the wall behind is disturbingly attractive. The whole thing lasts less than a minute. A 120-second countdown timer indicates “next war possible in” forcing a lull between action sequences. Pushing the war button is easy and the gratification is immediate. The interim between “wars” seems long and boring by comparison.

Bloat, from 2012, is a large American flag composed of plastic shopping bags. The red and white stripes and starless blue field are patchworks of plastic shopping bags from recognizable retailers: New Seasons Market, Target, Powell’s Books, and Nordstrom. A fan provides the literal “bloat” to the consumerist excess. Though single-use plastic bags were prohibited at outlets within the Portland city limits in October of 2011, the avalanche of stuff to be replaced by more stuff that comes home in plastic bags remains a cultural touchstone to which Americans relate.

Bill Will, “Bloat”/Photo by Robert M. Reynolds

Will insists that his work isn’t intended to be didactic but rather “thought-provoking.” He wants viewers to laugh first and think later. While individually, the works may be clever and amusing, in combination they seem bludgeoning. There are aimless missiles, war buttons, soldiers reanimated by a rotisserie, waving American flags, and a giant foam finger. By the time I got to the clanging anthropomorphic tea kettles and giant inflatable suit jacket (title: Pomposity), I wanted to flee. Maybe it is political fatigue; my own exhaustion with the spectacle that is American politics. But set against the backdrop of tweeted threats and the circulation of offensive videos, name-calling and racial slurs, Fun House felt too close. My smiles at Will’s cleverness were only half-formed and then immediately replaced by dejection at reality.

Bill Will, “Pomposity”/Photo by Robert M. Reynolds

In the catalog essay, gallery director Linda Tesner indicates that Will considers Edward Kienholz’s 1968 work The Portable War Memorial a central influence. This makes more sense than the proffered parallels of roadside attractions or carnivals. Made at the height of the Vietnam War, Kienholz’s installation juxtaposes sculpted Iwo Jima soldiers raising a picture of a fluttering flag with a café tableau. One soldier braces himself against an overturned café chair while nearby a cozy couple eat hot dogs, oblivious to the nearby struggle. The wall behind the grouping includes a marble plaque that commemorates “V_ Day, 19_”. While clever and an important commentary on public complacency and an unending conflict, from the vantage of 1968, I imagine this felt similarly distressing and certainly not at all “fun” or “funny.”

Another famous example of politically engaged art presenting the follies of society is Francisco Goya’s famous print suite Los Caprichos. From a distance of 200 years, Goya’s image of a woman cowering beneath a tree cloaked to look like a priest is humorous (What a Tailor Can Do). For viewers of the time, menaced by the power of the Catholic Church, its humor had a different, much darker and more macabre character.

If it no longer seemed that missile launches and ill-considered wars were real possibilities, it would be easier to consider the poignant commentary of Will’s work. We’d have to be able to look at it from the “other side,” though, and know that while this was a moment in history, it passed. Things changed. Hopefully some day soon, an inflated suit and red tie won’t be such an obvious reference.

Bill Will, “Undertow”/Photo by Robert M. Reynolds

While I wanted to leave the exhibition, I’m glad I went. Acknowledging the less flattering aspects of our national identity and political system—the empty pageantry, the consumerism, the impulsiveness—is a step toward change in the guise of reflection. It may not be fun, but it is an important dialogue for any civil society to have.

*****

Bill Will: Fun House continues and Lewis & Clark College’s Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery through December 10.

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