Oberlin, Ohio

View of “Fred Wilson,” 2016.

View of “Fred Wilson,” 2016.

Fred Wilson


View of “Fred Wilson,” 2016.

Fred Wilson’s exhibitions “Wildfire Test Pit” and “Black to the Powers of Ten,” which have taken over two galleries of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, a venerated teaching collection at Oberlin College, are sagacious follow-ups to the artist’s recent installation at the Cleveland Museum of Art. In the CMA’s Glass Box Gallery, an architecturally scaled glass vitrine inserted into the museum’s original Beaux Arts edifice, Wilson presented a spare installation of merely four works. Conversely, these exhibitions represent his largest combined project to date: an abundant gathering of the artist’s museum interventions and studio work in a town recognized for its historic role in the struggle for social justice in antebellum America. In addition to being the end point of the Underground Railroad, Oberlin was an abolitionist stronghold where in 1853 residents rescued the escaped slave John Price from federal marshals, an act that set in motion efforts to challenge the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. What better site, then, to mount this demonstration of Wilson’s continued investigations of race, power, and identity?

The Allen’s recently restored King Sculpture Court is the site of Wilson’s “Wildfire Test Pit,” the latest of his museum interventions, which stages a symmetrical installation of figural artworks and replicas of classical sculptures drawn from the museum’s collection, here occupying its jewel-box-like atrium. The replicas include plaster casts of works by Praxiteles, Verrocchio, and Donatello: They are placed alongside Richmond Barthé’s red terra-cotta African Head, 1935; Nicholas Alden Brooks’s trompe l’oeil painting Handbill of the Play at the Night of Lincoln’s Assassination, 1893; original late-nineteenth- to early-twentieth-century pairs of Cheyenne and Sioux moccasins; and the wooden base of a fifth-century Buddha sculpture, all drawn from the museum’s holdings. In the center of the gallery lies a bisected cast of an Italian funerary sculpture of a corpse. Into the supine figure Wilson has inserted a large wood carving, Nimba Dance Headdress with Carrying Yoke (Nimba) (also late nineteenth to early twentieth century). The carving’s beaked mask is mounted atop a yoke that forms flat, hanging breasts articulated with prominent nipples, which would have attached it to a wearer’s head and shoulders. The aggression of this forcible insertion is at odds with the eloquent and restrained adjacent interventions and the equivocal citations that grace the gallery’s walls.

Front and center within the arrangement is Bust of James Peck Thomas, 1874, a marble statue by onetime Oberlin attendee Edmonia Lewis, which has been moved slightly from its usual spot in the sculpture court for the occasion. Lewis, a sculptor of Native and African American descent, is the linchpin of “Wildfire Test Pit.” The exhibition’s title combines the artist’s Native American name (Wildfire) with the term for a strategic archeological survey method for potential excavation sites. Wilson’s pointed juxtapositions of objects and artifacts—here, positioning Lewis’s portrayal of the former slave and prominent real estate magnate at the helm of a troop of copies—collectively underscore institutional biases that shape assignations of cultural value. The most striking aspect of this installation is not the diverse material pulled from the Allen’s collection, nor the poetic didactics tucked throughout the installation, but the confrontational orientation of the standing figures. These gave the impression of a unified front, defying the curator who might attempt to return the works (and their placeholders) to their respective corners.

Meanwhile, “Black to the Powers of Ten,” a survey of Wilson’s work in the Allen’s large contemporary gallery, demonstrates in abstracted form the artist’s efforts to uncover deep-seated and insidious prejudices. The side-by-side bronze duo that constitutes The Mete of the Muse, 2006 (a black-patinated African figure faces the viewer, a European contrapposto is painted white), creates a symbolic and cognitive juxtaposition. So does Black Flags, 2009, his set of thirty-five black-and-white versions of standards from African, South American, and Caribbean nations. Wilson’s black Murano-glass chandelier No Way but This, 2013; and the mirrors Bat, 2009; I Saw Othello’s Visage in His Mind, 2013; and Act V. Scene II-Exeunt Omnes, 2014, seduce with equal parts material elegance and racially charged conceptual verve. The combined exhibitions reveal a decades-long theoretical aesthetic project dedicated to crafting polyphonic means of address. Wilson’s continued integrations of the institutional, the discursive, the personal, and the symbolic undercut official narratives while making room for hidden, suppressed, and unacknowledged histories.

Michelle Grabner