Fred Wilson

Berkeley Art Museum

As the affable ambassador of serious institutional critique, Fred Wilson has been warmly invited into fortresses of culture since the early ’90s to take on the task of exposing the racially and ideologically biased foundations of museum archiving and display. He performs a public service that, more often than not, functions perfectly as provocative contemporary art. This summer, he will represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, and one has to think that his even-keeled, politically progressive stance will come in handy.

Wilson’s practice of digging through and reconfiguring all manner of museum collections, turning standard display protocol on itself to expose the apparatus of centuries of Western ideology and oppression, is by now a signature style. This compact career survey, which brought together objects and re-created aspects of the site-specific installations Wilson has created around the country over the past twelve years, was, as such, a bit of an oddity. This artist’s tactics are rooted in sly subversion and surprise: Does retrospective treatment drain his practice of its power?

The exhibition, while engaging, faltered slightly when addressing that question. Wilson’s concerns are fundamentally conceptual: He applies an artist’s filter to the act of reorganizing historic objects in a very specific context, suggesting that in the process they take on new meaning. For example, Cabinet Making, 1992, originally part of the 1992 exhibition “Mining the Museum” at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, is made up of four nineteenth-century chairs positioned faceto-face with a whipping post. That the torture device was locked in the Society’s storage room and that Wilson unearthed and installed it in the exhibition hall next to the comelier, less condemnable woodwork, is the salient point. Reinstalled in Northern California, however, it lost a bit of its power to an extra layer of museification: The objects, shipped from Maryland, seemed like butterflies in a case, presented as they were within Berkeley’s concrete modernist architecture. And the graphic-design-challenged wall didactics didn’t provide the note of “stately historic home” that really would have made the installation pop.

More traditional sculptural works fare better—but then, they haven’t always been Wilson’s forte. Guarded View, 1991—in which the artist fitted a group of dark-skinned mannequins with guard uniforms from New York’s major museums—maintained its power as a streamlined comment on race and representation. But there were more mammy and pappy figurine sculptures from the 1995 “Collectibles” series included in the show than seemed absolutely necessary.

A subtle evocation of ethnic imaging is found in H RR R and H PE, 1999, black-and-white archival photographs of Jews in World War II concentration camps that have been matted so that only shadows and patterns are visible. It’s an oblique approach to the casualties of war, which Wilson touched on again in a work involving the holdings of the on-campus Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. Aftermath, 2003, was an elegant, gallery-size installation meant to suggest an in-process archaeological dig in which ancient and modern objects—from a broken Mesopotamian tablet to a cell phone—were marked with dates referring to unnamed wars. As usual, Wilson addressed his topic via modes of display, contrasting religious figures on pedestals with a low platform where an Afghani doll, Peruvian pottery, and a pair of shoes from Bosnia, among other items, were carefully arranged. These objects are witnesses to and survivors of violent epochs, more about life during wartime than about death. In fact, the gentle obliqueness of the piece suggests that Wilson, like the rest of us, may be feeling a bit overwhelmed. On that note, we wish him all the best for Venice.

Glen Helfand