New York

Fred Wilson

Metro Pictures

In “Panta Rhei. (A Gallery of Ancient Classical Art),” 1992, a plaster cast of Atlas bent under the weight of a stack of Western art history books. Barely visible beneath the base on which the figure stood was a single volume devoted to African art. As with Fred Wilson’s best work, this seemingly simple, shamelessly didactic sculpture resonates with subtler messages. We all know by now that European and American art historians have stacked the cards heavily in favor of the classical tradition, at the expense of African and Far Eastern cultures. H. W. Janson’s History of Art tops Wilson’s pile—in Wilson’s sculpture, the Western tomes supplant the globe: they are the world we have been taught.

By juxtaposing dense scholarly books and the graceful white figure, Wilson reminds us how much we “see” with our minds, how our notions of beauty and indeed of art are shaped by what books tell us. Untitled (Atlas) (all works 1992) formed part of a mise-en-scène mimicking, as have Wilson’s earlier installations, the conspicuously corrupt forms of cultural and ethnological packaging found in traditional museums—museums before historical revisionism arrived under the banner of multiculturalism. Throughout this show Wilson redressed the denial of the Egyptian connection by literally reuniting what was severed: heads from Egyptian statues were poised on the necks of decapitated classical figures. The titles informed us that the two parts, discordant in their scale, use of materials, and esthetic, represent parallel gods from each culture: in Artemis/Beast, a black cat’s head rests on a human female body; in another piece, Thoth/Hermes, a bird’s beak emerges from a man’s face.

Such juxtapositions speak as much of difference as of similarity. Notably, the African models were all black or earth-toned—all colored—whereas the classical models were of a pristine, even sterile white. The relentless and hyperrealistic anthropomorphism of the European gods contrasted sharply with the inventive animal physiognomies of the Egyptian gods. Suggestive of both a humility lacking in the classical work and the lesser role assigned to African art in cultural history, the Egyptian elements were smaller—the lips, noses, and eyes from classical works Wilson presented, disassociated from their visages and left floating near diminutive African works, looked truly monstrous.

Wilson has always infused his history lessons with sharp humor, and here he exploited a keen sense of the absurd, inscribing headless, limbless male and female classical torsos with Egyptian hieroglyphlike symbols, prodding us to make the obvious, all-too-natural connection with the “primitive” or “barbaric” art of tattooing “defacing” these masterpieces of European culture. Of course, coming at the end of Wilson’s cultural equivalence course, these recalcitrant works no longer lent themselves to such slanted readings.

But beneath the humor lay a residue of violence: chips fallen from the Greco-Roman sculptures, damaged in the act of beheading and rejoining, were scattered all over the floor. Wilson thus answered one form of violence (racist historicism) with another, forced cultural union. Yet lest we balk at this act of destruction, by using plaster casts in the style of the 19th-century study museum to make his point, Wilson reminded us that all of the works were fakes. Of course, such casts were made from works pillaged from their original sites and now exhibited in European and American museums—and so we’re back to violence in the name of culture.

Wilson hopes to move beyond strict revisionism—replacing one system or world view with another—to play with both. Just as the statues are fakes, fictions—his and history’s—Wilson’s vision is not so much more “correct” as more complex, richer, and probably more real.

Lois Nesbitt