Chicago

Charles Wilson

Marianne Deson Gallery

Charles Wilson’s dramatic installation of drawings, sculpture, and neon was saturated with the light from brilliant red illuminated inscriptions which were built into his pieces, and which picked out the titles and subjects like names on a movie marquee. The unlikely juxtaposition of cocktail-lounge atmospherics, tropical theatrics, and a World War II bomber was unexpectedly showy given the artist’s previous restrained, conceptually oriented photographic essays and sculpture, but was ultimately resolved, even homogenized, by the bath of warm light.

This exhibition marked the first stage of a strange and ambitious project which calls for the full-scale replication of the fuselage of a B-17, a relic of the recent past removed from the arena of nonart and recontextualized as emblematic of World War II. Even the neon that Wilson uses to reiterate the title of the beautifully rendered drawing Red Palm, 1982, is nearing obsolescence, with more potential for the inscription of contemporary esthetic meaning (e.g., Bruce Nauman, Mario Merz) than for contemporary commercial communication. Wilson often transposes subject matter from artifacts and rituals that bear many characteristics of art but are not defined as such. An aura of nostalgia for an ideal past in which art and technology promised some hope permeated this environment in a way that was strangely affecting—unusually and unfashionably direct and affirmative.

Constructing verbal and visual analogies Wilson invokes the shock of recognition in several metaphorically linked arenas of collision (artistic, pugilistic, and ballistic). Through visible and legible overlays as well as through emblematization, he touches on the dilemma inherent in the esthetics of violence, the bloody moments of war for which the B-17, the last plane to be handcrafted, was designed. Although his work is formally bold, even sensational, he avoids the strategies of distance and irony that usually come with the territory of appropriation. His transactions in the art-politics discourse are informed by a sense of history, psychological intensity, and even a poetic sensibility. Giant red oil-stick drawings, about 10 feet square, of luxuriant, swaying palmetto foliage, can be seen as feminine receptacles for the masculine steel bomber which carries the lethal charge; then, through a chain of formal and symbolic equations, the palms, emblems of life, explode into bomb bursts, particularly obviously in a hybrid piece to which a three-dimensional skeletal steel cross section of the body of the B-17 is attached. Viewers are distanced, perhaps protected from the piece by a 2 1/2-foot-high steel fence/sign whose perforations spell out the work’s title, You Never See the One That Knocks You Out . . . , 1982, a phrase attributed to José Torres, former light-heavyweight boxing champion. Even process is tied to iconographic program: the artist has used a gun to shoot out the letters stencil style. Lit by Wilson’s red light, they look like rubies or puncture wounds.

Only occasionally does this masculine-valorized evocation of the good war, nostalgia for the well-crafted, deadly machine, and romance of aviation run the risk of overdetermination and slip from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to Audie Murphy. Obvious polarities in the work—male/female, art/technology, sacred/profane, illusion/reality—are successfully and ambiguously merged in Station #1, where the nose section of the B-17, an idée fixe as well as trouvée, is mounted high on the wall and juts out 3 feet into the viewer’s space. A sexually suggestive body part or fragment no longer bound to its functional model, this bulbous cone, appearing like a shark trapped as it plunged through the gallery wall, demonstrates the sculptor’s authoritative, even authoritarian comprehension of scale. Welded, hammered, and discolored, it bears the marks of its construction, which correspond to the scars its real-life counterpart probably endured. Bathed by red spotlights, constrained by ribs that engineer its structure and determine its swollen form, it is a bruised artifact from a war machine and an ominous relic of minimal sculpture.

Judith Russi Kirshner