Don't be fooled by the subtitle, 'Works 1993-2011'. Karsten Schubert hasn't somehow fitted a two-decade Fred Wilson retrospective into his modestly scaled gallery. And it's be pretty demeaning if he tried, given that Wilson's signature interweaving of institutional critique and race politics - in landmark interventions like 1992's 'Mining the Museum', which rehung the Maryland Historical Society's collection to emphasise its latent racial bias - makes him one of the key American artists of the last quarter-century. Instead, the show includes just one pre-2004 work, the exemplarily focused 'Grey Area (Black Version)' of 1993: five painted plaster busts of Nefertiti, elevated so you have to look up at them, in a greyscale that turns darker as you read from left to right and asks, open-endedly, whether Western civilisation's ancestry in Egypt was white or black. Elsewhere, it mostly concentrates on the last couple of years (and in fact there's nothing from 2011 at all). No matter: the result is a spare, steely, poetic statement.
'Grey Area' is a logical inclusion because it deals with the problematic identification with colour - 'Images are obviously at the heart of racism because we look different,' Wilson noted in a 2010 interview - and chimes particularly with his recent flag paintings. Here, the designs of 21 African flags are transferred to canvas, but the specific colours that abstractly underwrite a national identity - and that hum with symbolic meanings - are omitted, leaving linear black acrylic designs on unprimed surfaces. Consider the inferences while looking at 'Quartet' (2010), a four-part sculpture in black blown glass, resembling oil-coloured tears, in which suffering, the plunder of natural resources and corrupt regimes intersect. 'A Thousand Points' (2009), meanwhile, uses a globe smeared with black enamel to analogise and intertwine African migration and the exploitation of natural resources, and 'Regina Altra' is a revolving model of the Diamond Diadem - worn by English monarchs since 1821 - studded with black and silver diamonds. If the last work reflects and unravels one unpleasant historical assumption of a social order, Wilson's bust of 'Ota Benga' - a Congolese pygmy exhibited, in 1906, in a cage alongside orang-utans at the Bronx Zoo - reflects another. Meaning, as it condenses, does so as much between these bleakly inferential works as within them.
Certainly Wilson is not in the business of offering glib solutions to the traumas of exploitation. But, having elected to deal with the visual sphere, he clearly identifies representation as germane, if not ineluctable. In the two bronze sculptures that comprise 'The Mete of the Muse' (2004-7), Wilson offers a richly succinct modelling of cultural taxonomy through artefacts: a black-painted, battered Egyptian nude, standing still and attentive, and a white-painted classical female figure gesturing effusively, taking freedom as her birthright. Theatrical this may be, but it's still breathtaking in its sleight of hand. Though not as breathtaking, perhaps, as the fact that this is Wilson's first ever London solo show. In May, he's lecturing at the Whitechapel; he should be having a proper retrospective there, or in a comparably scaled institution. Let's hope that this laser-guided display is the necessary preliminary step.