Black is Beautiful: Fred Wilson at Pace
Fred Wilson: Afro Kismet at Pace
July 10 to August 17, 2018
510 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, pacegallery.com
Fred Wilson’s “Afro Kismet” is seeing its third iteration. Made for the 2017 Istanbul Biennial, it was also presented earlier this year by Pace in London. The installation follows the now familiar strategy Wilson pioneered in his breakthrough 1992 project, “Mining the Museum,” in which he reconfigured the Maryland Historical Society’s collection to focus on its exclusions and thereby illuminate the history of slavery in the United States. “Afro Kismet” expands on this idea, turning attention toward Venice and the Ottoman Empire to consider the African diaspora on a global scale.
Wilson employs an extensive range of materials and strategies to explore this ambitious theme, exploiting his signature technique of blending the historical and the contemporary to its fullest extent. There are both appropriated historic tribal artifacts, such as a Yoruba Gelede mask, and objects that the artist has created, such as painted museum reproductions or works on raw canvas. Stand-outs – in terms of drama and scale – include a pair of large, opulent Ottoman-style black chandeliers hanging overhead. These not only add needed light to the space, but also, with their hefty chains, a sense of grounding. Black is deployed so forcefully throughout the show that it has the weight of a material in its own right. Historical prints – framed or encased with a sprinkling of cowrie shells – have been altered, as the black figures are spotlit through the near-erasure of white people under opaque vellum. Blackness is both textual reference and color choice in two tile walls emblazoned in Arabic letters with the phrases “Black is Beautiful” and “Mother Africa,” respectively. The African tribal pieces, in scattered vitrines, are paired with quotes, in black vinyl, either from James Baldwin (who himself lived in Istanbul for a time) or from Othello, Shakespeare’s racially charged play partially set in Venice.
Wilson’s more delicate touches carry their own kind of unique power. Trade Winds (2017), a tabletop plastic globe, poetically and powerfully illustrates the worldwide movement of abducted Africans through criss-crossing black brushstrokes. The vaguest outlines of nations and continents remain visible through some of the thinner strokes, inviting viewers to step closer and see the path of the natural phenomenon of wind turned unnatural through the trading of flesh. Works from Wilson’s “drips” series frame the center of the gallery. These are arrangements on the wall of individual blown-glass elements that the artist has described as reminiscent of oil, ink, or tears. Regardless of what they bring to mind, these glossy black clusters add an elegant, crafted touch to the referential, appropriated objects in “Afro Kismet,” and attune the space to specific emotions. The cascading arrangement of frozen-in-time shapes imbues us with a heavy sense of loss, sadness, and disintegration.
Adjacent to “Afro Kismet” is a gallery of related recent glass works. In contrast to the abundance of found and created objects next door, the more abstract glass works form a streamlined presentation of three “drips,” three “mirrors,” and Wilson’s most recent chandelier. This latter, A Moth of Peace (2018), hung at eye level in the center of the room, serves as a foil to the other chandeliers. It has a Venetian look, more organic than the Ottoman-inspired geometry of the other two, and is made of white and clear glass that extends upward, antigravitational in its vine-like progression. Wilson’s belief in “beauty in service to meaning and beauty as a seductive material that draws you in” feels particularly vindicated in this captivating work. Upon close inspection, one finds that it is not pure white, but that in fact there are a few small details of the design where a white piece has been replaced with a black one. These black bits prompt the eye to consider the rest of the room. The large, layered mirrors, each titled for moments in Othello, feature an intensely black high-gloss surface. Their dark mirroring allows visitors to see themselves in the work, particularly due to the light provided by the chandelier, which is itself always visible in the reflection as a looming white mass behind the viewer. The considerations of blackness that Wilson explores in “Afro Kismet” are thus distilled in this side of the gallery: whiteness is at the center of the room, and even when one turns away it is always looming close behind. The shadows of imperialism and colonialism remain, and, as “Afro Kismet” explores, they linger not only over the United States, but also above other historically slave-holding areas.
Wilson is not the only artist who uses black as both a subject and a material. His Where’s-Waldo-esque engravings bring to mind Kara Walker’s silhouette cutouts, while Rashid Johnson’s frequent use of black soap resonates with Wilson’s flags of African nations, reduced to black acrylic on raw canvas and hung across the highest point of the gallery walls, reducing people and nations to a few lines rendered in a single color. Kerry James Marshall’s mastery of black acrylic paint has cemented his signature style in his portraits, infusing them with individual personality and collective pride. Wilson’s pure black Murano glass, used in both the “drips” series and mirror works, achieves a similar effect. Such connections place this exhibition in a larger context of ongoing conversations of representation and identity politics.
The hopeful antidote to this legacy seems to come from the joy in Wilson’s pair of tiled walls (Mother Africa, 2017, and Black is Beautiful, 2017). After all, the installation is called “Afro Kismet,” which this viewer read as a redemptive view rather than accusatory history lesson. Like the “drips,” which tie together the two parts of the Pace show in their materiality, these walls can literally be seen in both parts of the gallery – monumentally in “Afro Kismet,” and framed within the doorway from the glass room. At nine feet tall and nineteen feet across, these gorgeously painted walls are more than just a backdrop for selfies (a popular phenomenon on this reviewer’s visit). Wilson adopts a rallying cry from the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States, and brings it face-to-face with a phrase symbolic of the history of displacement and reality of the vastness of the African diaspora. The traditional Turkish floral design of the tiles’ background offsets the almost-neon quality of the huge blue text. The deep purple, blue, and black tones of the walls, illuminated under the chandelier Eclipse (2017), diffuse a rich glow through the space.
Standing between these elegant walls, I felt embraced in the energy of the pattern and the light, causing peripheral thoughts to be subsumed by a profound sense of coming together. This might seem ironic, staged between two walls. Yet still, this space became an open channel for reconciliation, bridging the gap between “selfie” and “other.”