The sight that greeted visitors to the Maryland Historical Society in 1992 was unexpected, chilling even: four decorated nineteenth-century chairs had been moved from their original locations to surround a pre-Civil War whipping post.
The effect was precisely what conceptual artist Fred Wilson had intended -- viewers were forced to consider the racially charged context of the installation, a part of his Mining the Museum exhibition.
"It was the only exhibit we've ever had that has continued to make a buzz and it's been years and years since the exhibit was put on," said Iris Bierlein, special collections curator at the Maryland Historical Society. "For us it was a very big departure from our normal sort of exhibit. We hadn't been as in-your-face about the good and the bad of history and that's really what his exhibit was doing, bringing a new perspective to these objects."
Visitors to a 2001 Wilson retrospective at the Center for Art Design and Visual Culture in Baltimore were met by a similarly startling image -- Mr. Wilson had positioned a Ku Klux Klan hood inside an Edwardian style baby carriage.
"I became aware of the disjuncture between the meaning of objects and what was being said about them by the labels and the environment they're placed in," Mr. Wilson said of his interest in rearranging objects in museum collections.
While it's easy to go to a museum with preconceived notions about what to expect, Mr. Wilson, an artist of African-American and Caribbean descent and the recipient of the 1999 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, tries to approach an institution with an open mind.
"I just go tabula rasa," Mr. Wilson said. "I try to have a unique experience."
It's this same open-mindedness in museum-going that Mr. Wilson hopes to impress upon listeners when he speaks at 7 p.m. Friday at the Toledo Museum of Art's Peristyle Theater as part of the free public Masters Series that is sponsored by the Toledo Museum of Art Ambassadors.
His talk will focus on Mr. Wilson's efforts to raise questions about historical and racial issues by rearranging objects and moving them from more expected museum displays in a process known as recontextualizing. He has fashioned other museum installations throughout North America, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
"I just hope that people see museums just like they read newspapers -- if you only read one you're only getting one view of the world and you're really at a disadvantage," he said. "People see museums as a specific truth, but they're very subjective institutions. When people don't know that there's a point of view it's not good for the public."
After being invited by an institution to work within its collection, Mr. Wilson takes time to explore the collection's relationship with other pieces in the museum and the city at large, in what he said is a "holistic process."
While he has gained notoriety with his rearranged artifact installations, Mr. Wilson branched into working with a new medium in 2001, when he was invited to the Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle. During his time there, he worked alongside glass masters and "was hooked" by the medium. At the time, he had been working on black ink drawings that depicted a series of spots.
"When I first went to Pilchuck I already had been thinking a lot about notions of blackness in relation to African-Americans but also in relation to color," he said. "It was not a great leap to go from ink drawings to glass -- glass is a liquid until it cools and hardens."
By the time that he traveled to Italy in 2003 to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale -- a contemporary art exhibition established in 1895 that is held every two years in Venice -- he knew that he wanted to work with murano glass, a kind of glass that originated on the Venetian island of Murano.
While at the Biennale, Mr. Wilson encouraged audiences to consider a new point of view with the presentation of his murano glass chandelier, a part of the "Speak of Me as I Am: Chandelier Mori" exhibition. Unlike many other murano glass fixtures, which often conjure images of bright greens, blues, oranges, and pinks, Mr. Wilson's chandelier charted new territory -- it was black.
He has brought the same innovative technique to Iago's Mirror, a sculpture that was based on mirrors he saw while in the Berengo Studios in Venice and that the Toledo Museum of Art obtained in December 2010.
In keeping with the construction of the chandelier, the sculpture is also made of black glass, which artists created by layering mirrors and coloring the back sides black as opposed to the traditional silver.
"When I did finally see it finished I was amazed by how spectacular it was," he said. "It was the first time they made a mirror that was all black and made one with all those layers. It was birthed out like a beautiful baby."
The sculpture's namesake is a character in Shakespeare's Othello who is consumed by envy and who sees only blackness when he stares at his reflection in the mirror. In referencing the Bard's work, Mr. Wilson not only hints at the darker side of his compositions, but also reveals his continuing desire to shed light on racial stereotypes that exist in artistic compositions.
"I flirt with beauty and ugliness," he said. "I flirt with ideas of melancholy and beauty and race. I'm interested in the notions of the color black for our culture and for the world ... everyone who looks into [Iago's] mirror sees themselves as black."
Contact Madeline Buxton at email@example.com or 419-724-6368.
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