Fred Wilson Unearths Hidden Truths at the Allen Memorial Art Museum with “Wildfire Test Pit”


test pit – a small preliminary excavation made to gain an idea of the contents of an archaeological site.

Much like an archaeologist, New York artist Fred Wilson has made a career digging to uncover long lost or hidden treasures.[1]  Wilson burrows into the conventional Western history of art, mines academic and historical writing, and in many cases, he physically digs through museums’ collections to locate long-forgotten or seldom-displayed objects.  Oftentimes what he doesn’t find is more telling than what is there.  These findings in turn are the genesis of his installations, and such is the case with his spectacular new exhibition at the Allen Memorial Museum of Art in Oberlin, Wildfire Test Pit.  In the overcrowded atrium, the artist has assembled countless objects from deep in the collections of the Museum.[2]  Wilson challenges the viewer to look beyond the objects on view, and think about what we can’t see.  He forces his audience to question what is most easily seen and what is indiscernible – and ultimately, what has art history noted, omitted, or forgotten? And why?  A tall order, certainly, but Wilson’s new exhibition delivers with unstoppable force – and since a test pit is merely a preliminary dig, one can only imagine what lies even further beneath the surface.

Make sure you enter the Allen via its monumental Renaissance-style entrance to get the full effect of the exhibition.  Note the architecture as you walk up its pristine marble steps, past ornate columns, and into a vast atrium absolutely packed with objects.  The most prominent of this assemblage are the white plaster statues, copies of Greek and Roman statuary.  Once used to teach academic drawing, they had been languishing in storage for years.  These statues certainly fit the ornamental space in tone (in fact, they were once on view in this very room), but they are not alone – interspersed between Verrocchio’s David and the Venus de Milo are a number of objects, votives, masks, sculpture, African art, and even a set of modern telescopes.  This hodgepodge of items is chaos on first glance, but time and some careful observation reveal the method to this seeming madness.


The floor is so over-crowded with objects that I found the space exceedingly difficult to navigate (especially with a number of other people in the room).  Wilson’s arrangement requires the viewer to move carefully and slowly, bend down, even crouch in order to take it in.  And reading the labels is likewise a chore, some close to the ground, others are high above on the wall, both nearly indiscernible – many of the labels are extremely cryptic, and seem to be footnotes, but footnotes to what? Wilson may be softly mocking the proscribed tools of academia, but these footnotes read like answers to questions that we are not privy to. It makes you start to question all of the labels – are these real? Or is this one meant to be a joke?


Also on the wall are phrases, difficult to read due to the glare of the lights and their placement.  Some are stanzas of poems that seem oddly out of place, such as “Thought is deeper than all speech, / Feeling deeper than all thought; / Souls to souls can never teach / What unto themselves was taught” (taken from a poem by Transcendentalist writer Christopher Pearce Cranch). It takes me a minute, but I soon realize that Wilson has lifted these from the clerestory lunettes of the atrium’s ceiling, that has lofty poems laid in tile on each of the four corners of the room.  Putting these phrases on the wall of this exhibition gives them a new meaning – and I find myself wondering if Wilson is offering this particular stanza here as a critique of higher education (at elite institutions such as this very one).

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The most incendiary of these devices is also the most obvious, but simultaneously the most difficult to see. You may have noticed a motto engraved on the frieze of this stately institution as you were walking in that reads: “THE CAUSE OF ART IS THE CAUSE OF THE PEOPLE”.  Wilson has placed the same words inside, mirrored on the wall on which it stands outside, but here it is in the shadows, nearly indiscernible.  Discerning things is a theme here – but on a deeper note, Wilson’s exhibition as a whole is questioning the truth of this phrase.  Ostensibly art is for everyone, but back when that phrase was emblazoned across the façade of the building (1917), access to fine art was largely reserved for those with class, race, and gender privilege.  “But has it really changed that much since?” I ask myself as I take a look around at the people in this room.


Which brings me to the “Wildfire” of the exhibition’s title.  Wildfire was the Chippewa name of sculptor Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), daughter of a Chippewa Native American and a free African American, she was orphaned at five and spent her younger years living a nomadic life with her tribe.  When her brother struck gold in California, he was able to fund her artistic education and she arrived at Oberlin College in 1859. She took the name Mary Edmonia, having cast off her Chippewa roots, but her education abruptly ended when she was accused of poisoning two of her classmates with homemade mulled wine.  Oberlin may have been a center for the abolition movement, and liberal enough to allow female students to attend its hallowed halls, but Lewis was still clearly subject to grave racial injustice.  She defended her innocence in a lengthy trial, which she won, but was nevertheless dragged out into a field by local men and severely beaten.  Not long after, she left the town for good.[3]  She eventually fled to Europe, set up a studio in Rome, and was quite a success. Her atelier was one of the best known in the last quarter of the nineteenth-century.  There she carved portrait busts of famous men, allegorical groups, and Native American themes.


One of Lewis’s “famous men” is the very first thing you see when you enter this space – a white marble mustachioed well-dressed gentleman on a white marble plinth.   Wilson has placed it so conspicuously that you actually have to move almost uncomfortably close to it to get into the room.  I will admit that at first glance I thought it a typical Neo-classical Academic portrait bust of an upper-class white man, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.  This graceful marble likeness is of James Peck Thomas.  Thomas was born a slave, but his mother bought his freedom. He later moved to St. Louis where he became rich through real estate speculation. He met Edmonia Lewis on his Grand Tour through Europe, and she completed the bust in Rome.  It is thought to be her only portrait of an African American, and while it is undoubtedly a good-likeness, I can’t help but ponder the literal whiteness of this statue – the whiteness of most of the objects in the room (especially noticeable if you have seen Wilson’s entirely black series of Venetian mirrors and chandeliers, some of which are on view nearby) – and what having one’s portrait created in white marble implies.  It was made in the vernacular of a very elite Western Academic tradition, and for Peck, commissioning such a portrait may demonstrate his eagerness to be accepted as a member of the elite himself.


And while it is sitting in a room filled white statuary from that same tradition, Wilson has “interrupted” many of them with African art – such as the example below – making you question the huge differences between between these two very different forms of art-making.


Edmonia Lewis was only recently “re-discovered” by art historians, and sadly most of her work was lost over the years – but why? Why do some artists simply disappear from art history’s canon? Wilson addresses this by placing two telescopes in the space, that you have to look through to find out why they are there. One is trained on a focal balcony, where a golden African statue is prominently displayed and well-illuminated.  The other is focused on a small charcoal drawing by Edmonia Lewis, oddly placed in the upper corner of the wall, completely indiscernible from the ground.  I didn’t even see it until I looked through the telescope, which is clearly the artist’s intention.  It is one of only two works by Lewis in the show, and one of only a handful in Museum collections today.


It is also not lost on me that the drawing is one that Lewis likely made copying a plaster statue, very like the ones on display in this room.

Wilson toys with juxtapositions throughout his display, which turns viewing into something of a game.  For example, in one corner is a trompe l’oeil painting of a handbill from Ford’s Theatre the night of Lincoln’s assassination – and hidden in the shadows on a nearby plinth I spied a copy of Lincoln’s death mask.


Another wall pairs Rev. Albert Wagner painting, “Ethiopia” with Ethiopian masks and figures, and the decapitated head (head-hunted?) of a white goddess lays abandoned, unlabeled on the floor.


And then there’s the salt.  One of the most prominent recurring themes throughout the room is random piles of rock salt.  It was one of the first thing I noticed sprinkled on the Lewis bust’s plinth at the entrance, and makes appearances in other nooks and crannies.


The salt originates from one of the objects on view from the Allen’s collection, Robert Smithson’s “Slant Piece”.  Basically this a trash can on its side, spilling salt onto the pedestal. But this is not what the original piece looked like – Smithson’s work includes a mirror, slanted on a wall, with the salt (from this can), piled at its base (see below).  Wilson has eschewed Smithson’s intentions, and has given the work new meaning in this context.


According to the sticker on the can, the salt is “irreplaceable in that the mine it came from is no longer extant” – but Wilson has seriously ignored the preciousness of the salt by taking it away from its “high art” context, and arbitrarily sprinkling it around the room. In a further act of tongue-in-cheek bravado, the Museum label (nearly impossible to read without crouching down) next to the trash can reads: “The Apoxyomenos” by Greek sculptor Lysippus.  This is very much an “inside baseball” art history reference, but the statue named is in the Vatican, and is an athlete scraping the sweat off his perfect body with a strigil.  There are several ways to read Wilson’s meaning here – but chiefly I think he is placing Smithson’s work squarely into the lineage of canonical Western art history. There’s also a connection between the sweat of the absent athlete and these salty remains, but what I find most humorous is that Wilson has me questioning if this is even the original salt. It looks so clean and white, and would it be stored in such an ordinary metal trashcan? Maybe the entire thing is a fake.  But how can I be sure?  And this I think is Wilson’s point.  Should we trust what museums tell us? Are they the final word and authority? With Wilson at the helm, who’s to say?


Wildfire Test Pit was organized in conjunction with the artist by Denise Birkhofer, Ellen Johnson ’33 Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Andria Derstine, John G.W. Cowles Director, with assistance from Alexandra Nicome OC ’17 – and is on view in the King Sculpture Court of the Allen Memorial Art Museum until June 12, 2017.


[1] For a good overview of Wilson’s career, take a look at Steven Litt’s recent review of this show for the Plain Dealer.

[2] There is not a single piece made by Wilson in the atrium, but you can see plenty of his work in the nearby Ellen Johnson Gallery: “Black to the Powers of Ten” is a survey of the artist’s own works from 2003 to 2014.

[3] For a great overview of her life, take a look at this article: “The Life and Death of Edmonia Lewis, Spinster and Sculptor.”

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