Charles Wilson

Dart Gallery

Charles Wilson makes art that is monumental in at least two senses: it is ambitious in terms of scale, but also in its intent and articulation. Wilson’s art visits and revisits those places and events where the human spirit reveals itself, functioning as a needed corrective to our culture’s omnipresent will to forget. He makes historical markers, art objects that speak of the awful weight of history, of our need to remember, and through remembering, to understand.

Four of the five objects shown here were photographic in nature. Sometimes these images are simply matted and framed; more often, however, they are mounted on a skin of fiberglass set above a metal armature. Auschwitz/Berlin, 1990–91, places a recent photograph of the entryway to the concentration camp next to a photo of a side street in Berlin where a small section of the Wall is being removed. Though the gate of Auschwitz is closed, it is still inscribed with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Wilson’s photo, however, captures the almost sylvan beauty of the site, with its rustic arbor of trees enlivened by dappled light. The construction crew at work in Berlin does its job apathetically, far from the hubbub and the celebration. The significance of these two places and their juxtaposition lies in the human mind; the sites themselves are both innocent and ignorant. The earth has no memory, nature has no memory, stones have no memory; only humans have memory, and Wilson’s examination of two moments in recent German history acts as a mnemonic and a call to conscience.

The two largest installations in this exhibition use the African-American boxer metaphorically. As with ancient warriors or gladiators, the specific history of these mercenaries of our blood lust is a microcosm of the risk of existence, a real-time enactment of our culture’s hopes and fears. Benny Paret, 1990–91, speaks to the terribly high stakes this combat demands; the work is built around a photograph of Paret’s death in the rink in 1963. His glistening body is slumped in a corner, his veins and musculature are sharply defined, and his fists are still clenched beneath his gloves. He looks like the ancient Roman statue of the Dying Gaul, his public pummeling and execution lending him tragic breadth. Wilson mounts this photograph slightly off-center on a giant sheet of yellowish fiberglass and sets the whole ensemble on a gridded armature, giving the piece an architectonic stature, like an enormous retable. The word “DEATH,” scrawled over the top of the photo, is in some ways hardly necessary, as this object exudes mortality. Even larger in scale is Joe Lewis, 1990–91, a reading in the runes of the great “Brown Bomber.” A metal cutout of the boxer approaches a punching bag, in front of a large leaning wall of fiberglass that suggests an amphitheater, again supported by a minimalist metal grid touched everywhere by the human hand. In neon script, at the upper left, is the comment Lewis made when told of an upcoming opponent who had great footwork: “He can run, but he can’t hide.” Wilson overlays a blinking W atop the h’s in each “he,” suggesting a rather touching universality. It is history, Wilson seems to say throughout this show, that we cannot escape—its lessons, its accumulated power, its links with the present, its status as the clearest record of what and who we are.

James Yood