Standing on the stage at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Trustee Theatre last week, artist and MacArthur Award recipient Fred Wilson (b. 1954) described himself as a one-time “museum therapist” who is leaving institutional critique behind. “A lot of us artists who have been engaging with the apparatus of the institution for years have said all we have to say, now -- I think we’re moving on,” he mused. The mischievous Wilson, whose graying beard belies his youthful energy, spoke as the honoree of SCAD’s deFINE ART, Feb. 21-25, 2012, an annual showcase of exhibitions, lectures and public events hosted by the college at its campuses in Savannah, Atlanta, Hong Kong and France, and now in its third edition.
For the last three decades, Wilson has been celebrated for his provocative re-stagings of institutional collections, from the stodgy Maryland Historical Society (1992), to the Whitney Museum of American Art (1993) and the U.S. Pavilion of the 2003 Venice Biennale; his exhibition at Pace Gallery in Chelsea opens on Mar. 16, 2012. But he says that his newest intervention, Life’s Link, commissioned for the newly renovated SCAD Museum of Art and involving local collector Walter O. Evans’ extensive personal collection of African American Art and related documents -- some of which he bequeathed to the museum last year -- is not really a critique at all.
“This has been the most poetic of my projects,” Wilson explained to a packed theatre of note-scribbling students, “since I forged a real relationship with Walter [Evans] over the course of my research. My interest with this intervention wasn’t actually about the institution of SCAD or its program -- I just wanted to tease out fresh relationships between the artworks in the collection and the historic documents I found, and to encourage you all to see things in a new way.”
That personal note makes sense in light of Wilson’s working method, which involved numerous trips to Savannah from his home in New York and long hours spent at a table in Evans’ home, perusing his expansive collection of documents relating to the history of African Americans in Georgia. “I came across the most unexpected and moving things,” Wilson recalled, “while Walter and his wife brought me sweet tea and chicken pot pie -- they were incredibly generous hosts.”
The many fascinating documents that Wilson found include a family scrapbook belonging to Frederick Douglass, manuscripts of historic poems and even a “Wanted” poster for Angela Davis, and he has installed them throughout Evans’ collection, now housed in its own eponymous gallery in the SCAD museum, in strange and often striking juxtapositions. A jade-colored mantel by Thomas Day, installed deep into the wall and protruding like a relief, has become the frame for the cover of a 1926 underground magazine called Fire!!, which Wilson has hung where the actual fireplace flames would be. He has displayed a selection of Haitian dolls alongside a French painting dating from the same era, and installed nearby a letter sent by Napoleon Bonaparte to Haiti’s Governor Toussaint Louverture, just before France invaded Santo Domingo.
Life’s Link, on view through June 17, 2012, is anchored by Wilson’s own sculptural installations of Savannah’s signature variety of brick, the Savannah Grey (so-named for its smoky hue), which is found in the city’s oldest architecture and has been preserved in the new museum from its original building. Wilson sees these objects as aptly representing the collaboration between the past and the present, and he has stacked and piled them throughout the galleries in Carl Andre-esque arrangements on the floor and in tiered steps leading to paintings by Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden or Aaron Douglas; he has even built them up in short walls that now surround, and almost obscure, free-standing sculptures by Elizabeth Catlett and Richmond Barthe.
In the center of the gallery, Wilson has installed a long, wooden table -- inspired by the one at which he spent so many hours in Evans’ home -- on which are arranged his cast sculptures of black document folders like those that housed the original Evans papers. In each, Wilson has placed a single Savannah brick, a physical manifestation of the weight of history symbolically contained therein.
“Museums offers scholarship, and that should be their role,” he concluded at SCAD’s Trustee Theater, “but that doesn’t preclude the idea that art and objects can be viewed from various perspectives and have different importance for different people. It’s all about polyvalence.”
Surprisingly, Wilson’s prediction for the future of institutional display is optimistic -- even despite recent cases of museum censorship. “Things are looking good,” he said. “Not to pat myself on the back, but I am witnessing more and more exhibitions that seem to have the Fred Wilson edge.”
“Life’s Link: A Fred Wilson Installation Inspired by the Collections of Walter O. Evans,” Feb. 21-June 17, 2012, SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, Georgia.
EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor of Artnet Magazine.