Arts Desk

Wilmer Wilson IV, “Faust in the City,” Reviewed

wilmer-wilsonWhen Wilmer Wilson IV and his friends found themselves surrounded by police vehicles in Georgetown last month, it had to have crossed Wilson's mind that the encounter might add some context to his upcoming performance at Connersmith.

Wilson and his friends, artists chukwumaa and E. Jane, were leaving the Georgetown waterfront after the final leg of a performance in which Wilson carried a stepladder across the city, from Marvin Gaye Park all the way to the water's edge. After the trio hopped into chukwumaa's Ford Explorer, police officers descended upon the SUV. As the artists soon learned, police were responding to a call from someone who'd reported "suspicious-looking black man in an Army jacket" near the water. The date was Sept. 16, the same day Aaron Alexis opened fire at the Navy Yard. The caller apparently thought chukwumaa, who was wearing a camo jacket, matched a description of one of the shooting suspects.

Whatever the episode meant for the artists, it contributed the tense overtones in Wilson’s show, "Faust in the City," a performance that addresses economic factors that overwhelmingly weigh on poor and primarily black Americans, in D.C. and across the country.

For the performance, Wilson collected hundreds of instant lottery tickets and, at the show's opening, scratched them off one by one. There’s a sculptural component to much of the previous work from Wilson, a young artist who graduated from Howard University a year ago, and this show’s no different. At Connersmith, Wilson erected a series of high step-ladders in a single gallery. Standing near the ceiling, he then scratched off ticket after ticket, until he got a hit—at which point he descended the ladder and then violently knocked it over. Then he repeated the process. ("He who strives on and lives to strive can earn redemption still" reads the end of the tragedy that Wilson obliquely references, Goethe's Faust.)

The crowd at the opening-night Connersmith performance contributed as much to the piece as the artist. Buzz and chatter came to a screeching halt when Wilson sent a ladder crashing to the ground. The piece represents both the way that this featherweight kind of gambling targets and undermines poorer communities, and how this perpetually predatory system—essentially an extraordinarily regressive state tax—operates unnoticed by people unaffected by it.

Scattered McDonald’s French fries and lamps made from cans of Crisco cement the demographic on Wilson’s mind, though these are unnecessary markers. It’s the invisibility of the system itself that Wilson gives a face: his, but also those of the collectors and patrons who make a gallery scene a capital pursuit. It’s more pointed than the historically oriented performance in which he covered himself head to toe with postage stamps and, like the slave Henry “Box” Brown, tried to mail himself to freedom.

Yet like that performance, with "Faust in the City," Wilson runs the risk of leaving too little for the viewer to do in terms of interpretation. Fortunately, he presents a series of untitled sculptures that read a little less plainly—pieces of board, for example, to which he’s nailed scratch-off tickets. These add a final, and crucial, layer of context to the gallery show. Art objects, after all, are the most visible kind of conspicuous consumption. Take enough trips through Miami Art Basel—or, potentially, the (e)merge Art Fair in D.C. this weekend—and you might be convinced that there's something about art that belongs to the same category of vicious consumption Wilson has in mind.

The show is on view to Nov. 2 at Connersmith.

Photo by Tony Hitchcock/copyright Wilmer Wilson IV, courtesy Connersmith

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  • chris lee

    "The piece represents both the way that this featherweight kind of gambling targets and undermines poorer communities, and how this perpetually predatory system—essentially an extraordinarily regressive state tax—operates unnoticed by people unaffected by it."...classic...disingenuous white liberal

  • Jose Rossi

    @ Chris Lee: Excellent point! Although I believe that Capps is Hispanic in spite of his last name. But all his writing is indeed immersed in extreme fringe left wing ideology, anti-commercial bias, etc.

  • Kriston Capps

    @Jose: I'm a Texan but not Hispanic, for what it's worth.

  • Kriston Capps

    @chris: I'll cop to "white liberal" but I'm confused about what part of the review (or your excerpt) is "disingenuous." As for "classic," yes, the complaint that the lottery is a regressive tax is an old one. Here's a primer from the (non-partisan, independent) Tax Foundation explaining how lotteries prey on the poor:

    and a more recent story confirming that nothing has changed and the lottery is still a predatory system:

    Now perhaps this betrays my left-wing bias, but with regard to this review, I think that Wilson was making a similar observation about the lottery through his art.

  • chris lee

    First of all..GAMBLING is an American obsession as is Lotto, Powerball and all these 7/11 get rich scams. I thought the tone of the comment as the fault being in the targeted predation by the meanies who run these ops vs the bad habits of the people who solicit them was CLASSIC liberal victomology..sorry to single you out, but it's paradigmatic esp in trying, TRYING to sympathize with a black artist (re ) presenting elements of black life esp dysfunction.

  • chris lee

    to elaborate is it a critique of "bad habits" and the pathos of associating upward social mobility with "magic numbers" as opposed to hard work and rational calculation or is it once more "the man" preying on the unsuspecting defenseless poor.

  • David Smith

    I was at the opening and noticed that Wilson was in fact scratching psuedo-lottery tickets-small prints covered in silver paint. This replacement of reality with theatre seems to eliminate any potential for pathos here.

  • chris lee

    I think it's affecting symbolism in the actual piece. The issue is the interpretation. Obviously the presumption is that he is focusing on the idea of upward mobility in the context of black underclass social striving. I think it depends on who is observing and their framework of analysis whether it's all about pathos or critique.

    Isn't it sad that people think they can get out of their condition by scratching numbers on a card rather than the way people REALLY handle improving conditions? Everybody plays lotto, middle class white dudes buried in debts and mortgages hope buying some stupid ticket will lift them up into the big time but here the focus is on people already arguably on the skids hoping that a "dollar and a dream" is all it takes.