OBERLIN, Ohio — It feels necessary, prior to delving into the particulars of Fred Wilson’s Wildfire Test Pit at Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum, to explicitly define the terms “black” and “white,” because they are about to be used a great deal. Like Wilson’s work, these terms are operating here on multiple levels, referring simultaneously to the literal color (or absence of color) of many of the pieces on display and their racial corollaries.
For the purposes of this review, when I say “white bodies,” I am denoting not only the palette of the plaster-cast figures that populate the sculpture court which serves as the staging ground for the show, but also that these figures suggest historically European bodies. When I mention “black bodies,” I’m not simply acknowledging that the predominantly wood and mixed-media figures juxtaposed with these plaster casts are dark in color; I’m referring to their association with traditional African art. Almost without exception in Wilson’s work, white and black bodies suggest a deeper, racialized meaning.
It seems safe to assume there’s no mistake in this corollary — the artist’s ongoing series of interventions into institutional collections is entirely about context and intentionality. The physical interjection of black bodies into a space occupied by white bodies is extremely pointed. In Wildfire Test Pit, black bodies are given central placement, sometimes literally dividing broken white bodies or using crumbling plaster casts as a kind of scenery. In the darkest corner of the gallery — darkest in terms of material, racial, and lighting connotations — black heads are rendered in paintings and mounted on stands, while one lone white head lies discarded on the floor, decapitated.
Wilson “was here many, many times over the course of more than a year,” said Allen Director Andria Derstine. “He came and spent a lot of time in storage with us, looking at the collection, hearing about our history. He was interested in the plaster casts, because they really resonate with his own practice.” One imagines that the artist was especially drawn to these white bodies in such a state of disrepair — he seems instinctively attracted to objects taken out of context, and there are few things more disorienting in their lack of context than free-floating body parts. As Derstine acknowledged, “They were not valued as artworks for many, many years.”
This raises another strong point of Wilson’s work, regarding the power of paying attention. For art to be considered great or canonical, it must first be preserved (otherwise there’s no object left to canonize). Academia and art history tend to assign value to things long after their creation — often after their artists have died — and this generates a schism between the living meaning of works and their inclusion in a canon that “merits” attention. How much profound artwork is lost due to lack of attention? How much is disposed of through nearsighted inattention to the fact that anything, given enough time, becomes a precious artifact? The compromised condition of many of the objects in Wilson’s installation indicates a lack of perceived value that has affected their maintenance, and subsequently impacted our present-day impressions of them.
This is all the subtext of the main subject of Wildfire Test Pit: Edmonia Lewis, a sculptor of mixed Native and African American descent who attended Oberlin beginning in 1859 (the school was one of the first institutions of higher learning in the nation to accept women and people of color as students). Lewis started her study of art at Oberlin, but her time there was marred by allegations that she had attempted to poison fellow students, and she was brutally assaulted in connection with those charges, of which she was later acquitted. She went on to a successful career, first in Boston and eventually in Rome, but lapsed into relative obscurity by the 1880s.
Lewis’s experiences and connection to the college are referenced obliquely, in wall-mounted texts excerpted from testimony about her assault, as well as directly, with one of her own works, “Bust of James Peck Thomas” (1874), greeting the viewer as they enter the museum. Rendered in marble, it is the only figure on display that conveys a black subject in a white material. James Peck Thomas, born in 1827, was the son of Sally Thomas, a slave born in Virginia in 1787, and John C. Catron, a Nashville attorney.
Flanking the bust are two telescopes, whose lenses point up to frame two objects placed high in the upper echelon of the courtyard. One is another work by Lewis, a reproduction of an untitled pencil drawing from her time at Oberlin, portraying Urania, Greek muse of astronomy. The other is a 20th-century wood and gold-leaf female figure from the Baule peoples of the Ivory Coast, standing regally above the entire installation, framed by a wrought-iron balcony. In spite of all the action on the main floor, Wilson makes a point of literally directing our attention to the space above; in so doing, he creates a meaningful object lesson, not only in the power of the artist to direct the viewer’s gaze, but in the power of the viewer to preserve and write history by the sheer force of our own attention.
Fred Wilson: Wildfire Test Pit continues at the Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College, 87 N Main Street, Oberlin, Ohio) through June 12. Fred Wilson: Black to the Powers of Ten runs concurrently in an adjoining gallery.
Editor’s note: The Allen Memorial Art Museum paid for the author’s travel expenses.