Essaying history in black and white

Jennifer F. Michalak

October 06, 1992|By Jennifer F. Michalak

THE ARTIST creates in order to have an impact on his world. Michaelangelo presented his view of the world through his sculpture and painting. Claude Monet wanted us to see light and shape in a new way.

Fred Wilson, an installation artist whose work is currently on exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society, presents us with a uniquely contemporary view of our society.

Mr. Wilson's vision is presented in "Mining the Museum," a work of installation art that allows viewers to step into the artist's vision, then forces them to confront the world from that new perspective.

So-called "installation art" is a relatively new form of artisitic expression that involves a multi-media experience through which the artist literally constructs an alternate environment complete with its own emotional and aesthetic scenario.

Installations usually are constructed in such a way that viewers are led through one or more rooms in the course of the exhibit, during which they are presented with an artistic essay that can involve visual, aural and tactile elements of communication.

In "Mining the Museum," viewers are confronted with Mr. Wilson's central concern as soon as they step out of the elevator onto the museum's third floor: The artist is preoccupied with notions of "truth" as they relate to the inequalities suffered by African Americans throughout their long history in this country.

Mr. Wilson sorted through hundreds of objects stored in the historical society's archives and assembled them in novel groupings as a way of exploring previously unrecognized relationships among them regarding race, class and caste. What isn't in the exhibit is just as important as what is.

For example, a marble bust of former president Andrew Jackson is displayed near an empty pedestal with the black abolitionist and pamphleteer Frederick Douglass' name on it. Thus Mr. Wilson forces the viewer to make comparisons about who is remembered by museums and who is often forgotten.

(One of the ironies of the opening display is that none of the three white European males of whom the museum has busts ever set foot in Maryland, whereas the three black historical personages represented by empty pedestals -- Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Benjamin Banneker -- were all native Marylanders.)

Mr. Wilson worked with a vast array of artistic sources to make his points. Sculpture, painting and the decorative arts are combined with audio cassettes, videotapes and slides in "Mining the Museum." The variety of the elements presented pulls the viewer into Mr. Wilson's art, helping the viewer focus quickly and directly on the point of the piece.

In "Mining the Museum," the point is obvious: There has been and there remains a great disparity between the races. Mr. Wilson poses many questions for us to consider. The hope, of course, is that such provocations will help develop society's conscience so that today's problems can be adequately addressed.

Mr. Wilson's work is also noteworthy in that the Maryland Historical Society and the Contemporary, an institution devoted to contemporary art, collaborated in bringing his work to Baltimore.

Chief curator Jennifer Goldsborough of the Maryland Historical Society and Lisa Corrin of the Contemporary are to be lauded for their vision and tenacity in bringing this project to the public. Their unique cooperation exploiting the combined resources of both institutions allowed Mr. Wilson to present a piece that is truly groundbreaking in both historical and artistic terms.

Jennifer F. Michalak is an artist at The Baltimore Sun.

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