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Artist of the Week: Fred Wilson

February 27, 2011

Fred Wilson is an installation artist that works with objects which are already made and existing in our culture to create arrangements with contrasts, parallels and juxtapositions communicating layers of meaning.  Unlike Haim Steinbach, Fred Wilson is not interested in compositions based on colors or abstract art influences as applied to the manufacturing economy but on layers of meaning -including historical, social and psychological meanings- in the objects being preserved as valuable and how they are presented to the viewer.  He engages in a practice which he named “Mining the Museum” and has worked with the collections of various museums and institutions, considering the methods of presentation of the museum, the meanings conveyed by the presentations and the changes he creates in reordering these systems.

Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson, 1991 – 1993 [shown above] was at the Maryland Historical Society.  In this combination, Fred Wilson took slave shackles out of museum storage and placed them with a display of silver, which had the museum wall tag “Metalwork 1793 – 1880” to remind viewers that the wealth and privilege of some was at the expense of the enslavement of others during this period.  This simultaneously was a contemporary critique of the Maryland Historical Society and the practice of traditional or “neutral” exhibitions of works which are pretty and valuable, such as the silver tea set, while hiding or keeping out of view the slave shackles.

                                                  Guarded View by Fred Wilson, 1991

A quote from a book deftly explains another work of Fred Wilson’s:

“In another work of institutional critique, Guarded View (1991), Wilson displays life-sized headless statues of museum guards, forcing viewers to ponder directly those very institutional subjects who are rendered invisible by the dynamics of the gaze while at work in the museum.  Whereas many of the guards in the U.S. art museums are black and Latino, most of the patrons are white.  This installation foregrounded the issue of race in relation to labor and marketing practices of museums.  These works of figurative sculpture disrupted conventions of viewing by forcing museumgoers to notice the human presence of living guards, the very figures we are likely to ignore when we focus intently on the artworks the museum has displayed for our appreciation and scrutiny.  By displaying the “invisible” figure of the guard, Wilson brings to our attention the selectivity of our gaze, which readily excludes notice of these underpaid, low-level employees who have always been fully present in the visual field of the museum gallery.”

– Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture by Marita Sturken & Lisa Cartwright

Fred Wilson’s works are ongoing.  I was not able to find a web page or traditional portfolio site dedicated to his practice, but here are two videos.  The first is a little over a minute and shows the artist working with a collection of racist kitsch objects, the other is about seven minutes and is an interview and shows him at work.


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