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The Installment Plan

Museum Mining Pioneer Fred Wilson Gets a Museum Show of His Own

Guarded View, 1991
Club for Shango, 1995
Cabinetmaking, 1992
Atlas, 1995.
About Face 1, 1995

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 11/28/2001

Objects and Installations, 1979-2000

Fred Wilson

University of Maryland, Baltimore County Fine Arts Gallery through Jan. 12

When Fred Wilson did an installation at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992, he shook up the museum world. Co-sponsored by the historical society and the Contemporary Museum, Mining the Museum did not involve artwork made by the artist; rather, it involved reinstalling items from the historical society's collection in such a way as to make us reconsider them.

People expected to see the society's rich holdings of silver on display, but it was startling to see silver made for 19th-century Maryland households installed next to iron slave shackles. The juxtaposition forced you to confront the fact that many of the wealthy white Marylanders who owned this silver also owned the African-American slaves who polished it.

Mining the Museum brilliantly brought out how African-Americans had been treated, mistreated, and most often simply ignored in conventional museum displays of art and the decorative arts. The exhibit brought Wilson national exposure and resulted in similar museum-curatorial-practice-rattling shows at other museums around the country.

Wilson had, in fact, been doing such installation-oriented artwork long before he mined the Maryland Historical Society's holdings. You can get a sense of that bigger career picture in the quasi-retrospective Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979- 2000, curated by Maurice Berger and installed in the Fine Arts Gallery at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

As you'd expect, this is a handsomely installed, thought-provoking exhibit that all progressive-minded art enthusiasts should see. That said, Wilson is a tricky subject for retrospective treatment. In career terms, Mining the Museum and the projects he's done since are both more visually and conceptually impressive than what came before; in any event, this exhibit has a relatively meager sampling of his work from the 1980s.

That isn't the real problem, though. Think about how Wilson typically operates. He goes into a museum or other cultural site and reinstalls and reinterprets aspects of its architecture and collection, thereby prompting the viewer to reconsider that space and subject matter. Reprising these site-specific projects within a single gallery, as this traveling exhibit does, is bound to be frustrating for all involved.

Some of his installations, or at least portions of them, are re-created here in an environmentally effective way that evokes their original settings. Others rely more on documentation via a mixture of photographs, explanatory texts, and a few objects. These installations succeed in an educational sense; Wilson's messages still come across loud and clear. But obviously something is lost when installations are re-created and condensed for the sake of a touring show.

The section devoted to Mining the Museum relies on partial re-creations and somewhat skimpy documentation. It'd be nice to have a more full visual and textual account in the gallery, but this section includes the most powerful installation in the entire retrospective. "Cabinet Making" consists of four ornately carved chairs facing a wooden whipping post. You expect to see such furniture in a historical society's galleries, but it's shocking to realize that the same institution even owns a post where slaves were whipped. Indeed, the whipping post is the sort of shameful object that usually languishes in a museum's storerooms.

I had an "Oh, my God" response at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992 when Wilson installed the chairs so that they faced the whipping post, as if arranged to take in a show, and this brutally simple juxtaposition has lost none of its power.

It's interesting to see how Wilson explores various cultures at various periods in the installations he has done since then. The ongoing debate about how "black" Ancient Egypt was or wasn't is dealt with in the five painted plaster sculptures of the regal head of nefert-ite in an installation titled "Grey Area" (1993). These busts are identical except for their coloration, which ranges from white to gray to dark black. "Wrong (Aknatan)" (1993) quite literally raises racial issues with a single painted plaster head accompanied by an audio tape that repeats such questions as "What race are you?"

Wilson's historical digs, if you will, take him far back in time and place. One of his most emotionally resonant installations is "Friendly Natives" (1991), in which plastic skeletons are placed in old-fashioned glass vitrines of the sort you'd find in natural history museums. The vitrines are accompanied by such labels as someone's sister and someone's father.

Wilson makes astute connections between ancient cultures, racist museum curatorial practices in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the fact that race remains an ongoing problem. "Guarded View" (1991) address the latter point. It's a lineup of four black mannequins wearing museum guard uniforms. These figures have black hands, but no heads. Visit most museums and you'll find people of color working as guards for artwork that does not usually reflect what they look like or their culture. The mostly white museum-goers look at the art and generally ignore the mostly black or Latino guards. If that scenario is starting to change, it's at least partly thanks to the provocative career of Fred Wilson.

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