La Wilson, Sculptor

1993 cleveland arts prize for VISUAL ARTS

The observation that we are surrounded, more than at any time in human history, by objects may not seem particularly original or significant. Indeed, much has been made of our obsession with acquiring things: The whole television industry is built on it. But we are not talking here about the sleek SUV glistening with raindrops in the driveway or the home entertainment center that resembles the lit-up control bank of the Starship Enterprise. Allow us to draw your attention, rather, to the myriad prosaic, often tiny objects we could scarcely function without, but hardly ever pay any attention to: pencils, corks, belt buckles, batteries, car keys, clothespins, shirt buttons.

It is these things—not paintings or photographs of them—but the objects themselves that are the stuff of La Wilson’s art. Nor is she the first to assemble and display such curious artifacts in glass-covered (or open) boxes meant to be hung on a wall or placed in the center of a room for the amusement or contemplation of visitors. She was not even the first to offer found objects as “art.” What separates Wilson’s assemblages from the ones that turn up at the neighborhood crafts fair are (a) her extraordinary eye, and (b) her genius for creating subtle juxtapositions and arrangements that tug at—or subvert—our assumptions about the world.

“The magic of her art, which is about examining, collecting, sorting and assembling,” said The New York Times of Wilson’s work in 1999, “lies in its unexpected transformation of ordinary, even bland items into objects of power, danger, wonder or warning, all with a mysterious aura and an offbeat, lopsided charm.”

An impish sense of humor or desire to be provocative is sometimes seen in what she likes to refer to as her “constructions.” “She uses objects that get you a little nostalgic,” says Akron Art Museum director Mitchell Kahan. “Then she cuts that with, often, a very acerbic or violent element to undercut the fantasy that the viewer has. You can have broken glass or pencils arranged in a [certain] way and pointed like stakes in a booby trap.” But Wilson’s constructions differ in some very important ways from the celebrated “boxes” of Joseph Cornell (1903–1972), which are often self-consciously, if beautifully, assembled to evoke literary or other allusions. “Cornell’s boxes seem to be filled with wistfulness, yearning and a sense of longing, both unfulfilled and rationalized,” writes the Akron Beacon Journal’s Dorothy Shinn in reviewing a 2006 show of Wilson’s recent creations at the Harris Stanton Gallery. She finds Wilson’s boxes, by contrast, “witty, ironic, surprising and replete with observation. Observation,” Shinn notes, “is the key.”

This, she says, is because the modernist aesthetic within which Cornell operated was preoccupied with our ability to find meaning in things, even surviving fragments of a once-functioning whole: The truncated torso of a Venus de Milo evokes a lost age of splendor, a yellowing photograph the memory of happier times. Post-modernism brought a different attitude to the object disconnected from its original purpose: A thing’s meaning, the post-modernists believed, derived from the context in which it was found. Without the rest of the bicycle, a bicycle seat and pair of handlebars could signify the head and horns of a bull; a porcelain urinal on a pedestal could become a fountain. Meaning flows from context.

But Wilson, taking the playfulness of Picasso and Duchamp a step further, has said she deliberately resists the temptation to reduce her assemblages to a particular meaning (“I don’t think about what they mean; I just make something with them”) and encourages viewers to do the same. She collects objects—a pencil stub, a bobby pin—simply because she finds them intriguing; only after she has arranged them in some way that feels right, that feels “interesting,” does she allow herself to step back and see the statement that the assemblage might be making. And she never shares her own reactions with other viewers. Her “constructions” will evoke different associations, different memories for each individual who stops to contemplate them with an open mind.

And so, while Cornell’s boxes drag the outside world in, often with poignant effect, Wilson’s boxes, writes novelist and former Beacon Journal writer Thrity Umrigar, are about our “secrets, hidden places, inner lives.” Can you remember how, as a child with new eyes, you looked at a model plane propeller found in the grass, a strip of crayon wrapping, a little toy ladder? This is La Wilson’s gift to you.

Born in 1924 in Corning, New York, of Irish parents (“La” was a childhood nickname she preferred to her given name, Mary), she dropped out of Smith College in 1944 to marry U.S. Navy serviceman David Wilson, who was to become a prominent Akron attorney. It was after moving to nearby Hudson in 1946 with David and their two children that La enrolled in a weekly painting class at the Akron Art Institute (now Museum) with LeRoy Flint that ended after two years. That was her only formal art instruction, but it started her painting avidly. Soon, following a strange compulsion, she found herself affixing little objects onto her canvases, which gradually morphed into hanging sculptures. “I had no rules to follow, and it gave me freedom.”

She first exhibited one of her “constructions” in the Institute’s 1959 Spring Show; in 1967 she captured three honor awards at its annual juried exhibition—and had her first one-woman show, at the Ross Widen Gallery. By the end of the ’80s Wilson had been taken on by a New York art dealer, the John Davis Gallery in SoHo. In 1993, she walked off with the $1,000 First Prize for Sculpture at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s prestigious May Show. Her pieces, some of which have sold for as much as $5,000, would eventually find their way into more than 100 private collections around the world. Her work, often described as “a celebration of the ordinary,” proved in fact to be something far more interesting: the familiar transformed into the unexpected, an art that surprises even as it delights.

—Dennis Dooley

For more on the artist, see Elizabeth McClelland’s 1994 monograph, The Art of La Wilson, or visit www.johndavisgallery.com

 

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