Peace Blog

Fred Wilson Field Trip

“Wilson’s art speaks a language of redress…”

— Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago, IL: U of Chicago Press, 2013): 26.

On November 3, 2016, my colleague Eric Zeigler (see his contribution at the end) and I drove six students for an hour and a half to Oberlin, Ohio, to hear African-American artist Fred Wilson (b. 1954) speak about his work on the occasion of two exhibitions he installed this past year at Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum in this small college town (my alma mater). We were already familiar with the artist, each one of us having often admired his black glass sculpture Iago’s Mirror (2009), acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) in 2010 (it was last on view in the TMA’s Gallery 6 for the temporary exhibition Shakespeare’s Characters: Playing the Part).

Mirror made out of black glass.

Fred Wilson: Iago’s Mirror, Murano glass (http://www.toledomuseum.org)

Listening to a talk by the 1999 recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant was inspiring and exciting. Getting to see his work in both a solo exhibition (Fred Wilson: Black to the Powers of Ten) and in the site-specific installation Wildfire Test Pit was amazing. Fred Wilson’s works remains on view at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio until June 12, 2017.

As a generous, instructive, insightful orator, Wilson was spectacular, sharing slides as he described an artistic trajectory and longtime interest in understanding museums through their collections. Starting out by invitation from the Maryland Historical Society in 1992, his attention began training on the Atlantic slave trade, the Indian slave trade, and movements of oil — or as he eventually came to call such dynamics, Movement of Blackness. Giving form to institutional memory by “mining” museum collections, Wilson would feature decommissioned possessions, like slave shackles or a public whipping post, side by side with an institution’s finest silver and furniture.

He spoke about installing over 50 portraits of Daniel Webster at the Hood Museum, in Dartmouth College, simultaneously with a series of plaster cast busts identifying human specimens from around the world. In the case of the latter, Wilson hid racial inscriptions with sashes of mourning, to encourage viewers to see them as people. This includes a cast of Ota Benga, the Congolese youth exhibited at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904; he would end up committing suicide in Virginia 12 years later.

In mining the Allen Memorial Art Museum, at Oberlin, Mr. Wilson found himself magnetized by Edmonia Lewis whose story “remains obscured by rumor and mystery” as one scholar puts it. An orphan of African-American and Native-American heritage from New York, Lewis studied art at Oberlin College starting in 1859. A few months after the Civil War had begun, she was accused of poisoning two (white) friends, beaten by a mob, arrested, and tried. Although acquitted, she continued to be harassed and eventually left without graduating.

Heading to Boston, she secured further artistic training, before taking up residency in Rome, Italy for several years, where Lewis enjoyed success for her marble statuary. She disappears from the historical record, after returning to the States. That night, Wilson described the nineteenth-century sculptor as a “guiding light” for his site-specific installation at the Oberlin museum, which he had entitled Wildfire Test Pit for both the Indian name given to Edmonia Lewis and the “archaeological term for a site you dig to see what’s there.”

Installation view 1, Fred Wilson: Black to the Powers of Ten (Eric Zeigler)

Whose truths? Whose histories? Whose memories prevail? In mining museums, after looking at everything and talking to everybody, Fred Wilson generates an art that reshapes his material environment, reinterprets historical narratives, and reconstructs those cultural memories that have been erased or excluded. In doing so, he compels us to more carefully scrutinize cultural bias in any historical record, including that of the museum institution: minding not only “what’s there” — or “who’s there”— but also “what’s not there” and “who’s not there.” Art like Wilson’s inspires active engagement, whether in locating truth, however elusive, or becoming increasingly aware of how fault lines in official constructions of history ultimately bind disparate cultures to each other.

I was particularly moved to hear him address the crisis of Aleppo and the Syrian civil war as well as relate it to still unresolved crises here in this American nation. Our field trip to Oberlin proved intensely rewarding, inspiring reflection long afterward, as demonstrated by the student and faculty responses below. We hope you get to go and we welcome your feedback to our posts.

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Dr. Mysoon Rizk is Associate Professor and Head of Art History in the Department of Art and the School of Visual and Performing Arts; she is also Director of the Humanities Institute in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Toledo. To learn more about her, please visit her peace fellow and academic profile. A few of the courses Dr. Rizk teaches as part of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Toledo include: ARTH 3750 Art and Disease (cross-listed with Disability Studies, Law and Social Thought, and Women’s and Gender Studies) and ARTH 3700 Art and Feminism (cross-listed with WGST).

 

Fred Wilson: A Student’s Response

When I decide whether or not I like an artist talk I base it on two criteria.  Did the artist give me a new way to look at art (theirs or otherwise) and does it make me excited to create my own?  I recently had the opportunity to hear Fred Wilson give a talk.  I have been fortunate to be exposed to his work for a long time as one of his pieces lago’s Mirror was acquired by my local museum in 2010. I loved this show and talk and would recommend that anyone who can hear Mr. Wilson in person or can view his work firsthand make every attempt to do so.  His work and presentations are as intellectually stimulating as they are visually pleasing. His talk not only altered the way in which I will view museum gallery displays in the future but I was so inspired to go home and create work that the 1.5-hour car ride home was the largest test of patience I have ever had to exercise.

The reworking of the museum spaces was amazing and the gallery with his work was equally powerful.  It was extremely important for me to see and hear his message because he executed with such a surgical precision the very thing I am trying to do in my own work.  Though our subject matters are different the way he approached his shows and work is exactly how I want to be able to present my own.  One of his pieces, Act V. Scene II Exeunt Omnes [part of the same series as Iago’s Mirror] was one of the most overwhelming pieces of art I have had the privilege to see in person.

Installation view 2, Fred Wilson: Black to the Powers of Ten (Eric Zeigler)

When standing in front of this piece, you get a jigsaw-like feel from the multiple panels of the mirror, each floated on top of one another in a way that makes it seem as though you could move them around despite their colossal size.  It is so large in scale that if you stand just a couple feet in front of it, your peripheral field becomes consumed by the reflection of the room around you — with a black tint in it.  Then you yourself can be seen in a very obscured way as the glass is reflective but not with the same purity as a traditional mirror.  This obscurity can become unnerving if you stand in front of it long enough.  The most interesting thing to me was that, while standing in front of this piece, I experienced something akin to tunnel vision — where I begin to block the sounds of everything else and kind of just become entranced by the work.

Mr. Wilson’s personality was present not just in his talk but in his work through a subliminal sarcastic humor in the sense that the place (i.e., the museum) one might have assumed was going to present us with an unbiased display of historical culture was washing away (and quite literally hiding in some cases) the full context of our history as a people.  Skepticism I had not even had before the talk will now be at the forefront of my mind when I view museum collections in the future.  What I found most interesting was not that Mr. Wilson presented these problems but how he did it.

He curated shows in such a way that it was poking fun at museums’ intellectual authority and often during his talk left me wondering if the people who put him in charge realized what he was doing.  There was a sly sarcasm to how he presented these shows that once you realize them gives you a good solid laugh at the obviousness of them.  There is a certain type of intellectualism that Mr. Wilson carries with him and it is exercised not just in his eye for aesthetics but the breadth of historical knowledge he walks around with.  It was incredibly inspirational to me as a minority male who often thinks about these very issues to know that they are being brought up on a larger platform.  His talk at the same time made me feel slightly ashamed that I allowed such a blind spot in my own recognition of these issues that I hold so personally.

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Christopher O.T. Pickett is a senior BFA candidate in 2D Studies in the Department of Art and the School of Visual and Performing Arts, in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Toledo.

 

Fred Wilson: Another Student’s Response

Short of knowing about Fred Wilson’s Iago’s Mirror and prints in Toledo Museum of Art’s collection, as well as To Die Upon A Kiss in the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection, I had little knowledge of the scope of Wilson’s work. I vaguely knew of some ties to Shakespeare’s Othello from reading the plaques in both art institutions and not much else. This is not to say Wilson was not on my radar.

Installation view, Wildfire Test Pit (Mysoon Rizk)

His work in other institutions was acknowledged in several essays I had come across recently for a research paper I am writing on another African-American contemporary artist, named Renee Green, mainly with regard to both artists exercising a practice of shifting of the lens, so to speak, to engage viewers in a different dialogue. Green’s work, albeit amazing, is incredibly complex and confusing at times. I’ve struggled thus far to not go down the rabbit hole, and I’ve attempted to glean pertinent information from my research. Because there are so many individual elements in Green’s exhibitions often spanning years and multiple exhibitions, it is difficult to step outside of Green and take her work at face value. In short, Green attempts to change the lens with which we look at art, in an effort to show us what is present, what is not, and everything in between. Wilson’s approach is related.

With Wildfire Test Pit, one of the exhibitions inside of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Wilson placed many works by artist Edmonia Lewis and texts on the walls outlining the abuse of Lewis. While each of the components of the exhibition engaged viewers, Wilson also placed two telescopes pointed at works high up on one wall. Viewers were invited to gaze into the telescopes and view what is distant. Viewers were not permitted to move the telescopes but rather to leave them focused on the specific objects on display. In doing so, it appears that Wilson subtly forces the viewer to look only at what he wants them to. When looking into the telescope, the viewer sees naught but the work. All of the history, the text of abuse, and the art of Lewis (save for the work the telescopes are focused upon) are forgotten. This, seemingly, is a tie to a point Wilson made during his lecture.

In early work, Wilson brought up his experience working for both the Museum of Natural History and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. He noted that the Museum of Natural History laid out the history, literally, while the Metropolitan appeared to gloss over the negativity of such history. More specifically, in labels for some of the indigenous artworks on view, the Metropolitan chose to say “acquired by” as opposed to “stolen by.” Wilson implied that the Metropolitan’s glossing over of the gory details greatly influences viewers’ perspectives; forcing them to see only what the Metropolitan wants to show. Similarly, Wilson forces the viewer to see only the work through the telescope, nothing else. The telescopes remove the context needed to understand Lewis as an artist and human being and, in a manner, reduce Lewis to a producer of art.

Attending Wilson’s lecture opened my eyes to the practices Green exercises and allowed me to ground myself in the shifting of lens practice that both Green and Wilson utilize. In the case of Wilson, his humor and intellect show in both his content and his delivery. A somewhat eccentric looking gentleman, with hair that strikingly resembles To Die Upon A Kiss in color and curl (beginning with gray at the top and ending in black, each dreadlock reminiscent of the roses in that chandelier), Wilson spoke to an overcrowded room filled with a variety of people.

Perhaps the most striking image shown during his talk was Wilson’s juxtaposition of fine silver alongside slave shackles in the middle of a display case. Wilson brought up the dialogue this creates; one of tension and jarring questions. The silver itself represented beautiful, quality pieces. But who would have handled the silver? None other than the shackled slave. Similarly, during Wilson’s process of “mining the museum” for an exhibition, he found busts of “native” peoples brought to the 1904 World’s Fair for show. As a sort of honoring their memory, Wilson covered the plaques of the busts with white scarves, adding his own touch underneath, with thoughts they may have had, such as “I’m the one who left and didn’t come back” under one such bust.

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Cail Lininger is a 3rd-year student and an Art History major, with a concentration in Art Museum Practices, in the Department of Art and the School of Visual and Performing Arts, in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Toledo.

 

Fred Wilson at Oberlin: What Is Important for Us to Remember?

While visiting Fred Wilson’s exhibition Wildfire Test Site at Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum, be sure to look up. Not only is the architecture of the museum [designed by Cass Gilbert] a work of art in itself, but Wilson fills the walls of the sculpture court with quotations and paintings. It’s impossible to take in the exhibition in once glance. By pairing casts of monumental sculptures found in Oberlin’s collection — by the likes of Donatello and Verrocchio — with African sculpture, Wilson draws connections between objects not traditionally displayed together.

The idea of race and remembrance rings strongly here, particularly through Edmonia Lewis’s bust of James Peck Thomas, a former slave who eventually made his fortune in real estate. The classical white marble and perfect composition remind us of the race of man portrayed, but also of Lewis. Through her exemplary work, Lewis acts as Wilson’s muse for this exhibition; Wilson even references Lewis by his title. “Wildfire” was Lewis’s Native-American name and “test pit” is an archeological term for excavating immediate subsurface conditions, which is precisely what Wilson does when creating an exhibition like this. He digs for what is hidden within a museum’s collection and history.

While Lewis’s troubled history with Oberlin is not necessarily hidden within the college, Wilson places it front and center in Wildfire Test Site. In his most effective commentary on traditional museum practices, Wilson places two telescopes near the front entrance of the sculpture court. When you look through one, a beautiful gold African statue is displayed within the vignette. The other points to a small charcoal drawing by Lewis, like a drawing of a plaster cast, a number of which fill the room. The distance between the viewer and these two objects can tie into many of the ideas Wilson explores, including the search for Lewis’s life and work after being lost for so many years.

Wilson combines snippets of quotations on Edmonia Lewis’s tortuous life, poetry from Transcendentalist Christopher Cranch, and lines from a historian’s account of damaged classical artwork. An account of Lewis’s attack on Oberlin’s campus pairs perfectly with lines from the historian’s account of damaged work. The ruins of Lewis’s own life and work, as Wilson implies, are mirrored in the destruction of classical work in Syria. Wilson brings into view the almost illegible poetry from Cranch, seen in the high corners of the atrium. One of the verses completes Wilson’s connection:

“Heart to heart was never known;
Mind with mind did never meet;
We are columns left alone,
Of a temple once complete.”

 

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Abby K. Byers earned a BS in Apparel Merchandising and Product Development before joining the University of Toledo as a Special Undeclared Student in the University College with an interest in Art History, Art Museum Practices, and French.

 

An Alumna’s Reflection on Fred Wilson

During my undergraduate years in the Art department at the University of Toledo, a professor assigned me Fred Wilson as an artist to research and explore. Wilson’s art depicts Black bodies and Black objects in contrast to Classical works of art like one would see at any art museum. Wilson’s work draws from racial conflict and the way that racial history is explained and shown (or not shown) throughout museums. Having graduated in May 2016, I was excited to join my former professors Dr. Rizk and Mr. Zeigler, along with a few of their students, not only to listen to a talk by artist Fred Wilson but also to take a glimpse of the town of Oberlin, Ohio. Oberlin was a hotbed of abolitionism, part of the underground railroad network, and has an extensive African-American history. It made the trip to see a prominent Black artist even more exciting!

Installation view 3, Fred Wilson: Black to the Powers of Ten (Eric Zeigler)

During the lecture, I noticed how down to earth Wilson was. He was very calm and humorous but with a distinct air about him that made him feel like a great person of importance. He explained many topics along with their connection to his work. Most notably, he explained how he works on site-specific installations at museums. He sifts through a museum’s collection and brings to light a story that seems to be left behind or possibly rejected by prior curators and art historians. When objects of non-European descent, or contentious artifacts, are shown, their description cards often feature watered-down truths of how a museum might have acquired said item: such as, “Sir So-and-So was given this very important object from natives of the region,” when in most cases the object was probably stolen or obtained in a not so friendly manner.

When you think of your typical art museum, African or Native American art is rarely shown alongside classic European paintings. Western art and historical museums often take ethnocentric points of view, meaning that one’s own society or culture is presumed to be superior, its values shared universally, when categorizing pieces of art. In the West, museums tend to describe non-Western objects as exotic, primitive, or other-worldly — compared to Western traditions. By creating an amalgamation between European art and non-white or racially charged or conflicted pieces, Wilson illustrates the tensions Western society, curators, and historians have perpetuated.

As an artist who also draws from Black culture and America’s racial tensions, I personally felt a unique connection with Wilson’s work. Categorizing humans based on looks, culture, or language is not necessarily a bad thing, but when stereotypes and ethnocentrism are prevalent, a superiority complex emerges. There is no question that White supremacy rules the Western world and influences many countries and continents even outside the Western sphere. White supremacy is so ingrained in the United States that it is reflected in our laws, our schools, and our prison system. White Supremacy is our culture.

Dismantling something that has had hundreds of years to grow will not be easy and will take a considerable amount of time. We cannot simply speak of peace and equality without putting work or effort into it. It’s not as easy as saying “Peace in the Middle East” or “No war, only love” at every conflict. We must reach out and participate in government, our communities, and in activities and actions that will help achieve peace. Creating art is a great vehicle for and display of social activism. Through art you can introduce social problems and ways to address them. By disrupting our society’s negative norms with images and sculptures, we can foster peace and acceptance, through critical thinking and analysis.

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Faith M. Goodman graduated magna cum laude in May 2016, with a BFA in 2D Studies and a minor in Art History, from the Department of Art and the School of Visual and Performing Arts, in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Toledo. Although she currently works as an Office Assistant in the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, on the Health Science Campus, she is preparing to attend an MFA program in Fall 2017. She has been accepted at both the Columbus School of Art and Design and the California Institute of the Arts.

 

The Belief Lens

“We are stubborn about our decisions” writes design, technology, science and culture essayist Tom Vanderbilt. In a recent essay “How Your Brain Decides Without You,” Vanderbilt considers the role that preconceived notions play in creating biased decisions. He approaches his essay with references to physiological science and neuroscience, and finds that “we form our beliefs based on what comes to us from the world through the window of perception, but then those beliefs act like a lens, focusing on what they want to see.” As a photographer and artist, my research and practice is based entirely on how a lens functions to change the perceptions we have of the world around us. When I read Vanderbilt’s essay, I was immediately struck by not only the implications of his research on my own practice, but also the similarities to an artist lecture and exhibition by renowned artist and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant winner Fred Wilson.

I recently attended a lecture by Wilson at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio with my colleague Mysoon Rizk and several of our students, and we were awed by the way in which he was able to reveal to a museum, and the museum’s respective community, the curatorial bias of their collections. Throughout his career Wilson has revealed racial and ethnic blind spots in the curation of many art museums and historical society collections, often presenting this research in the form of curated exhibitions within those same sites. Wilson uses a humor of juxtaposition and the horror vacui of absence to reveal this bias to the viewer.

Faculty and students at Fred Wilson lecture at Oberlin College (Mysoon Rizk)

In his 1992 exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society, for example, Wilson provided six pedestals, three supporting the busts of historically prominent white men (Henry Clay, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Andrew Jackson) alongside another three pedestals that appeared vacant but were labeled Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Benjamin Banneker; the implication being that these last three locally prominent figures are not represented in this collection, while the busts of the white men who have less of a local prominence are included. The empty pedestals appear as a sly joke until approached and examined. The declared absence of the busts is then painful to see, and the pain then erases previously biased lenses the viewer has developed.

It seems to me that Wilson’s artistic practice is utilizing the same “lens” that Vanderbilt talks about in his essay. The decisions curators have made over time have become hardened as a result of inattention, and that inattention then constructs a persistence of biased curation for these objects. Wilson provides a strong sense of relief for those aggrieved by these self-reinforcing biases, and does so through a visual means that is easily accessible. I think Wilson has revealed to all viewers of his work a way to move past the stubbornness of our own decisions.

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Eric Zeigler is Lecturer of Multi-Disciplinary Art and Foundations as well as Print Center and Photography Lab Technician in the Department of Art and the School of Visual and Performing Arts, in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Toledo.


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