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In Depth Study on Fred Wilson

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In Depth Study on Fred Wilson

In today’s contemporary times, art can be specialized into disciplines or fields, each with different medium, composition or style. Furthermore, some disciplines can be subdivided into more specifics, such as painting which can be narrowed down to oil or acrylic. These styles required time and space to be fully evolved into what they are now. One of these styles is installation art, which uses an infinite number of techniques and media in modifying the way viewers experience a certain space.

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Materials used in this contemporary art ranges from bottles, computers, electric fans, and any other everyday objects   Because of its nature, this art is not confined to galleries and museums. In fact any discernable space, from tree groves to super mall parking lots can be modified and worked upon by an installation artist. And the outcome of the art is limited only to the artist’s imagination. One artist who has stretched the limits of common and normal perspective in installation art is Fred Wilson.

He went beyond the aesthetic property of modifying spaces and brought out a more socially related context in his art.

            Fred Wilson was born on the year 1954 at the Bronx in New Year, a place commonly known as dominated by black. In an interview by Christopher Miles, he described himself as of “African, American Indian, European and Amerindian” descent and grew up in his birthplace as well as in a white suburban tract of Westchester County. As a child, he spent most of his time in museums, particularly the Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of Modern Art located in New York. He was taught all about art at an early age by his mother, a school teacher, while educated in the academics by his father, an international consulting engineer. He took up Fine Arts from the State University of New York at Purchase. During this time, he was the only black student in his class. After obtaining his degree in 1976, he worked in the education departments of the two museums he visited often when he was a child, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. Not to be excluded, the Museum of Modern Art in New York also became a work place for him, where he spent some time working as an artwork installer.

            As an artist, he was included in many exhibitions and galleries in New York. The year 1981 marked his exhibition career when his works were included in a group show at the A.I.R. Gallery. He was able to show his works at the Sculpture Center in 1982 and joined different events such as the “Art on Beach” held on 1985. He also did a lot of outdoor museum work in the subsequent years which earned him several awards and nominations. One of these is a grant he received from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990. The year after, he held his one-person exhibitions at the Gracie Mansion and at the Metro Pictures. Both are galleries in New York. In 1999, after a few more solo and group exhibitions, he received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship award and he was chosen to represent the United States in the Venice Biennale (Brown). Prior to this, he has also represented America in the Biennial Cairo in 1992.

            His lifetime works and awards were results of his different view and perspective in making his art. Fred Wilson made an impact in the art world when he revealed his pieces that combined aesthetics with critique, form with analysis, and media with assessment. His different works does not only cause glimmering eyes, but always opens the awareness of a viewer into some social, political and racist issues. His awareness of these issues can be seen in his installation artworks, where he sometimes shows depictions and representations of Africans. Art historians Paul Kaplan and Salah Hassan described these representations as broad and wide, ranging from “personifications of virtue to those of sin, and from delicate portrayals to caricatures” (Miles). A wide time frame was also included, beginning from the 11th century and taking course through history including before, after, and during the dreaded black-slave trade.

            Many of Wilson arts are a way of communicating to the public and bringing back the ideology of racism buried in history. His works have the ultimate ability of creating a picture of olden cultures, those that are supposedly forgotten but still bears a mark in the present society. He also awakens the consciousness of white-black relationships, and this can be seen in many of his installation arts. The popular website, PBS.org has a whole section on art and an article defining some of these works and their way of manifesting the concept of “blackness” as perceived by the artist. These can be seen in works like a suite of black sculptures, black-and-white tiled room and some black colored dripping that look like tears. Wilson also displays some texts, usually narratives from African slaves together with the other media.

A review by Mike Giuliano entitled “The Installment Plan” described some of Fred Wilson’s art. In one of his works, entitled “Grey Area” (finished 1993), he opened the debate on the existence of “black” Africans in early Egyptian civilizations. This installation shows five painted plaster heads of Nefert-ite with colors black, grey, and white. This work suggests the existence of a possible race-related problem way back during the ancient times. This shows Wilson’s interest in all culture and periods of history. He explores these and other different dimensions and checks their potential into bringing up the messages he wishes to achieve.

            In 1992, Fred Wilson did another art which stated a very clear and concise message to the public. Based on his previous works, this shook not only the artist’s community, but the curator’s and the museum realm as well. In fact, even professors, students and virtually anyone who was able to view the installation went home enlightened by it. His installation, entitled “Mining of the Museum”, took the artist’s view of art in a totally higher level. This was done at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, with the help of his friend Lisa Corrin, who is a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Arts (Stein 1). From the first word in the title, “Mining”, Wilson dug deeper into the contemporary museum world. As a child, he was fascinated and quizzed at the same time about the displays on a gallery and the practical, normal ideas and thoughts relayed by museums. He then formulated an installation to bring forth explanations and surface issues hidden deep within museum walls. He gathered facts and evidences from the museum’s archive of paintings, drawings, furniture, silverware, statues, sculpture, and its many other works of art. And in this course, he did not, in any way, include any of his original works in this exhibit.

            Instead of holding an exhibition inside the museum, Wilson made the museum an installation art in itself. He acted as a curator, gathered the artworks and treated them as raw materials for his project. The museum became his canvass, and the artworks within it as his paints. He used these highly institutionalized items as a way of surfacing a message of social justice against racism. One of his aims was to make the world aware of the museum’s ability to consciously or unwittingly invoke ideologies of racism beliefs and behavior (Stein par. 2). He tried to prove that there are more to that glorious wealth of art in cabinets and display, something deeply rooted in history. It is something that we, as contemporary viewers of art, should start reconsidering.

            In this installation, Wilson rearranged objects, adjusted light sources, and jumbled museum labels and tags to form different artworks. By doing so, he was able to recreate the space as a whole new entity, but still containing the original items. He did not alter these elements and artworks, but if viewed as one, these can reinforce a new perception, something different from its original intent. The museum can then be viewed as an old building seen in a modern way, in a way Fred Wilson designed it to be seen and understood.

Wilson, in recreating the museum’s objects, used the concept of juxtaposing a lot. This technique causes a forced relationship between two totally different objects. Such as that of the 19th-century silver and slave shackles art entitled “Metalwork”. It is really interesting to see some of the riches owned by the high-society families of Maryland. These silvers, glittering against the museum lights and calling the attention of anyone passing by, are related to symbols of wealthy and well-lived families during that era. If placed in a stand or displayed in a cabinet, like what a normal museum would do, they would sit in place innocently, accepting all admiration and awes given to them. But by placing them next to some iron shackles, they become symbols of slavery and maltreatment. These silvers are now seen in a very different manner. They are not just silvers, but objects shined by African-American slaves. The two items also suggest the idea of ownership and property; the families who own these silvers also own the slaves working to keep these as shiny as possible (Giuliano par.2).

In another work, entitled “Cabinet Making”, Wilson dug really deep into the archives of the museum and resurfaced an old whipping post. This is a very strong sign of slavery, an object that instills fear into anyone that comes in contact with it. In front of it are four classy, ornamentally designed Victorian chairs, arranged so that anyone who sits on them faces the whipping post. It is as almost as close as to watching a movie, where the post is the subject. This reveals a very strong languishing feeling, knowing that such horrible object is being kept in the museum’s storeroom. This raises the question on to what extend can this sort of “art” be kept? Should its historical value be a justifiable cause? Wilson extends the question to the viewers as to how much of this should be retained inside a museum.

            Also seen in the exhibit are the different wall colors. The installation art occupied the whole third floor of the museum, spanning a total of eight rooms. The colors of the walls in these rooms change successively from gray, green, red and blue. Stein defined these colors as additional palettes of Wilson’s art, and each color defining a different segment of the exhibit:

“… as visitors moved from the “gray” area of historical truths, the “green” quarters of human emotions, the “red” environs of slavery and rebellion, and the celestial “blue” spheres of dreams and achievements.” (3)

Such use of colors strengthens the different emotions felt by the artist as he made the exhibit; a certain range of “colors” he wishes the audiences to feel.

            Wilson was also able to show a significant amount of biasness in the museum in regards to self portraits of important men. There are three pedestals containing the portrait busts of three white men who are of great significance during their respective times – Henry Clay, Napoleon Bonaparte and Andrew Jackson. Next to these are three more pedestals, higher in length, but no visible portraits. Underneath are three names of celebrated African Americans – Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Benjamin Banneker (Stein 4). This art exemplifies the gaps in museum collections. Since all portraits and artworks used are from the museum’s archive, this shows the lack of materials in the museum to properly give credit to the African-Americans.

            To compensate for this, Wilson designed on of the rooms as a dedication to Benjamin Banneker. Banneker was a free-born Marylander, mathematician, surveyor and astronomer (Stein 6). In this room lie evidences of Banneker’s correct prediction of an eclipse, as well as a computer monitor showing the night of the said phenomenon, October 18, 1800. Posted around this are excerpts from Banneker’s journal and diary stating his dreams of people assaulting him. Some even described these cruel assaults in detail (Stein 6). This is probably Wilson’s way of showing the greatness of African-Americans and the consequences attached to such fame. The chances of seeing a black man portrayed as someone higher than the whites in a museum is very low, if none at all.

            These and many other works in Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum suggests three different meanings and effects. Firstly, it accounts history, on how people of color have been treated by whites during the past. Next, it shows how these people fare in the world of museums; on how much little information about them is displayed, and how they are portrayed in these institutions of art. Finally, it causes an increase of awareness of the public regarding this racist view and how it still maintains in effect up to the present.

Because of Wilson’s unique style, technique and approach to his motives, his works have been greatly acclaimed as both pleasing and moving to the normal viewers. It does not take a museum curator or a well-verse art critic to know what Wilson’s message is. A simple onlooker will be immediately captivated by both the tension and comfortableness of his works. Wilson, by his art, especially his installation Mining the Museum transformed the view and perception of many regarding art. He proved that the history of America is the history of the Black.

Work Cited

Brown, Kathan. “Fred Wilson.” Magical Secrets Website. 28 February 2008<http://www. magical-secrets.com/artists/wilson>

“Fred Wilson’s Biography.” 2007. PBS-Art in the 21st Century. 1 March 2008<http://www. pbs.org/art21/artists/wilson/>

Guiliano, Mike. “The Installment Plan.” 28 November 2001. City Paper Online: The Arts. 28 February 2008<http://www.citypaper.com/arts/default.asp?issueDate=11/28/2001>

Miles, Cristopher. “Special to the Times.” 20 July 2003. Rena Bransten Gallery. 29 February 2008<http://www.renabranstengallery.com/WilsonF_Article_LATimes.html>

Stein, Judith. “Sins of Omission: Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum.” Slought Salons for a New Criticism. 2003: 1-6.


Cite this In Depth Study on Fred Wilson

In Depth Study on Fred Wilson. (2016, Jul 28). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/in-depth-study-on-fred-wilson/

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