Meanwhile up in Collegeville

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In a big weekend of Philadelphia openings, I slipped away with my friend Bay and her husband George for the opening of their friend La Wilson’s retrospective at the Berman Museum. The 80-plus year old Wilson, a self-taught assemblage artist from Hudson Ohio was showing forty-four, mostly small-scale wood boxes filled to the brim with common objects placed in extraordinary juxtapositions. (top image, “Interchange,” 1999)

Wilson, a sprightly, white haired charmer who showed up for the opening wearing black leather knickers and a black sweater, didn’t start making art until she was in her 30’s when, as a wife and mother she was encouraged by a friend to start making things. She took one course at the Akron Art Institute and was off and running, pulling together large and small pieces made from collections of scavenged stuff (chalk, pencils, dominoes, dice, stones, rulers). She and her family lived with the work in the house, in some cases tucked right into the architecture. (image below right, “Transitions,” 1986)

Her family didn’t consider what she was doing art. “My kids thought it was fine, it was something that Mom did,” she said.

It took a number of years of producing work and showing in group exhibits in the Akron and Cleveland area before Wilson’s work, in 1983, came to the attention of Akron art dealer John Davis who gave her a solo show in his gallery. Davis, who understood the important relationship between Wilson’s art and her home environment, installed the gallery as if it was a slice of Wilson’s house — he painted the walls with bright colors and moved in furniture, rugs and a piano from the artist’s house. People loved it and the show all but sold out. (image below is “New York Option” 1990)

Wilson is a natural art maker. Her pieces have an unforced charm that comes from someone who works intuitively, loves her materials and arrives at poetic juxtapositions so open you can read a world of meaning into them. You might think of Lucas Samaras when you see the extravaganza of materials crammed into a small box, in some cases using mirrors. But unlike the hot, self-absorbtion of Cosmos Lucas, Wilson’s world is a cool and calmly-reflective place, each box like a kind of museum or teaching tool asking you to reflect on relationships yet not spelling it out.

Wilson had a bottle phase where she filled small glass insulin bottles with beads and colored thread, then assembled them in grids or — tumbled them into a larger bottle. These latter works have a ship in a bottle niftiness. They also have a gorgeousness arising from the crisp glass, the sinuousness of the swirly thread and the shiny, bubbliness of the beads. (see botton image, “Bottleneck” 2002)

Here is Wilson talking about Art, with a capital A. “Art is a way of life. It should be where people are, which gives it a chance to live. If it is withdrawn, put in an artificial situation, even in some museums, it may die,” quoting from the show’s catalog essay by Edward M. Gomez.

Davis, who represents Wilson, told me he will be opening a new gallery in New York this year. He and Wilson are already planning her first show in that space. “Her new work is big. It’s more powerful than ever,” he said. I can’t quite imagine big works by this tiny, modest artist but I can’t wait to see them.

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