Art And Humanity
Fred Wilson discusses his provocative work at CSUMB.
Thursday, November 6, 2003
An upcoming event at CSU Monterey Bay promises to offer cogent insights into the artistic process, the social function of art, and the power of art to confront our preconceptions and prejudices.
A conversation will take place the evening of Nov. 12 between two MacArthur Fellowship recipients: Amalia Mesa-Bains, director of CSUMB''s Visual and Public Art program, and Fred Wilson, a New York-based installation artist and representative of the United States at this past summer''s Venice Biennale.
Wilson has received a great deal of attention since his "Mining the Museum" exhibition at Baltimore''s Maryland Historical Society in 1992. In that installation, Wilson rummaged through the institution''s repository and selected objects that he then reconfigured to extract new meaning. The show featured "Cabinet Making," an iconic work where he positioned a whipping post surrounded by vintage chairs "viewing" the torture device. A label nearby contained the legend "1820-1960," a reference to the years the whipping post was actually used. The horror of the post juxtaposed to the coziness of the chairs strikes a blood-chilling chord, for these are the kinds of chairs in every white American''s grandparents and great grandparents'' homes. It provokes the issue of complicity as it reminds us of the horror of the practice.
Wilson works in the shadow of Marcel Duchamp in his installations of objects that must be interpreted and read as one might decipher a coded message. Duchamp, the French Dadaist and provocateur, maintained that anything was art if the artist designated it so. His notorious urinal, for example; or a bottle-drying rack. The maneuver took the emphasis from the aesthetic virtue of the work of art, and placed it on the content embodied in the work.
Such an audacious stance in the first quarter of the 20th century kicked the doors open for artists, such as Wilson, who gather objects, arrange them in meaningful ways, and present them as personal expressions. Installation and performance art, even video and multi-media presentations, owe a great deal to Duchamp''s example. And Wilson--part Duchamp, part Malcolm X--is the consummate multi-dimensional artist, having utilized all these forms. For example, he had himself videotaped smashing two plaster "mammy" and "pappy" figurines, which he later reassembled in the shape of a baseball bat.
Wilson has developed a means of making artistic statements using objects and institutions as his palette. The viewer completes the dynamic relationship by bringing to the experience preconceptions and prejudices, in short, a mind grooved to think one way. Wilson places himself in the way of that thinking; rather, he places his appropriated and reconfigured objects in the way, so that the viewer is forced to reconsider his or her preconceptions.
Typically, Wilson makes arrangements with museum curators to go into the vaults and extract objects for his installations. With a keen eye and a socially-charged consciousness, Wilson reworks the objects'' meanings by juxtaposing two or more artifacts in surprising ways.
Critical evaluations of Wilson''s projects invariably refer to his openness, his good humor, and his humanistic stance. Wilson, who reports that he is of African, American Indian and European descent, was born in the Bronx and grew up in white suburban Westchester County, New York. He took classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and attended the racially diverse High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. He took his art degree from the State University of New York, Purchase, where, it has been pointed out, he was the only African-American in the art program.
Such experiences have given Wilson a unique perspective. As he uses collected artifacts from institutions to reveal stereotypes and prejudices, he does so with compassion, rather than an axe to grind.
One piece from a recent Berkeley show indicates Wilson''s concern for language of museum displays and the conventions of collecting, and shows his humanist approach. For "Friendly Natives," he placed four skeletons in glass-and-wood cases. Labels read, "Somebody''s Grandmother," Somebody''s Grandfather," "Somebody''s Father, "Somebody''s Sister." His message here, and doubtless in the upcoming discussion with Mesa-Bains, is that we have a tendency to objectify each other, like museum pieces, but, that like the skeletons in the cases, we are related as a human family.
On Nov. 12 at 6:30pm, Fred Wilson will talk to Amalia Mesa-Bains in the University Ballroom, Building 29 on 6th Avenue on the CSUMB campus. For more information, call 582-3766.