Alternative Historical Narratives Emerge in Two Exhibitions by Fred Wilson


Artist and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient Fred Wilson has created two exhibitions—one of works that he made or fabricated, and one drawn from the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum—that explore themes of race, time, memory, and meaning. Both call on viewers to reconsider the historical narratives typically disseminated by scholars and museums.


Wilson has been making trips from New York to the Allen (located on the campus of Oberlin College) for more than a year in preparation for his installation Wildfire Test Pit in the museum’s King Sculpture Court. Questions about the politics of erasure and exclusion come to the fore in the exhibition, in which AMAM works are juxtaposed and re-contextualized in unexpected ways. Wilson’s collaborations with museums and cultural institutions began in 1992 with his acclaimed Mining the Museum exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society. He has since created site-specific installations throughout North America, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.


In Wildfire Test Pit, Wilson returns the AMAM’s central gallery to its roots as a space for displaying classical sculpture, creating an illusory setting of ruin and redemption. A primary inspiration was the life of a 19th-century “sculptress” who briefly attended Oberlin College, where she collided disastrously with the America of that time. Wildfire Test Pit is a metaphor for the biases in perceptions of what and who should be remembered. With its emphasis on uncovering marginalized art histories, the installation coincides with the Allen’s focus on the concept of time in many of its programs and exhibitions during 2016–17.


In the Ellen Johnson Gallery, Fred Wilson: Black to the Powers of Ten features works by the artist dating from 2003 to 2014. He represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2003, and while in Italy he worked with traditional glassmakers to make black versions of 18th-century forms such as chandeliers and mirrors, highlighting the color in relation to race and mourning. Working with glassblowers in Seattle since 2001, Wilson has created a vocabulary of black glass “drips,” an ongoing series seen in the Oberlin exhibition.


In addition to Wilson’s glass works, the exhibition includes paintings, sculpture, and a video, all of which challenge assumptions about history, culture, and display practices. For example, a series of flag paintings, marked by an absence of color, asks viewers to think about nationhood and representation. In a series of prints, inky spots are in some cases accompanied by texts spoken by black characters from classic literature. The video September Dream, shown at the 2003 Venice Biennale, offers an alternate viewing of Shakespeare’s Othello, bringing themes of violence to the fore, along with nostalgia for the world prior to September 11, 2001.


The AMAM’s programs and exhibitions are free and open to the public.


Allen Memorial Art Museum

87 North Main St.

Oberlin, Ohio  44074



Wildfire Test Pit / August 30, 2016 – June 12, 2017

Fred Wilson: Black to the Powers of Ten / August 30, 2016 – June 12, 2017

Opening reception, 5–8 PM on Thursday, September 8

Artist lecture, 5:30 PM on Thursday, November 3