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The World According to Wilson, Part 2 

Conceptual artist Fred Wilson slyly mocks the ways in which art is displayed and collected at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

Wednesday, Jan 22 2003
A former curator, African-American conceptual artist Fred Wilson knows there's more to the process of presenting art than immediately meets the eye. He often addresses the biases of art display and collection in his most controversial work, much of which will be shown in his midcareer retrospective "Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979-2000," opening this week at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA), and on display through March 30.

Wilson is best known for his "institutional critiques" -- faux works of art and mock museum exhibits -- that challenge the assumption that art is presented in a neutral setting. His parodies toy with display cases, lighting, wall colors, and labels as part of a process he calls "a trompe l'oeil of curating." It usually takes more than one look to get the joke. In Friendly Natives (1991), for example, a skeleton displayed in a glass case -- much like the kind you'd find at a museum of natural history -- is labeled "Someone's Sister." In Guarded View (1991), four headless, dark-skinned statues are dressed in the uniforms of different New York museums, a not-so-subtle reminder of the absence of blacks from art institutions, except as security personnel.

A cultural critic as well as an artist, Wilson tempers his political activism with wit and sarcasm, tagging artifacts with tongue-in-cheek labels -- "Removed from India to Europe, early 20th-century" -- and creating powerful juxtapositions (he's presented iron slave shackles with silver goblets from the same period, or shown whipping posts alongside Victorian furniture). The posh practice of art collecting isn't all that Wilson takes to task. In the series "Collectibles," he explores racially loaded flea market finds and tchotchkes. In Mine/Yours (1995), he compares Aunt Jemima figurines and miniatures of Uncle Tom and Black Sambo ("Yours") with an antique photo of a stately black family ("Mine").

In addition to this retrospective, Wilson's new anti-war installation, Aftermath, will be shown through July 20. Fashioned to resemble a ruin site or an archaeological dig, the timely piece looks at the consequences of military combat. Created while Wilson studied the extensive collections of the BAM/PFA and UC Berkeley's Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Aftermath addresses how most traditional exhibitions about warfare glorify the aesthetic value of weaponry while downplaying the repercussions of bloodshed.

Should there be any doubt as to Wilson's standing in the art world, the New York-based artist was chosen to represent the United States at the prestigious 50th "Venice Biennale" this June, along with 128 artists from 65 countries around the world.

About The Author

Lisa Hom


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