Paula Wilson’s latest exhibition at the Fabric Workshop is a story of privilege.
Paula Wilson’s latest exhibition First Story at the Fabric Workshop opens with a painted image of the artist leaning out a window in one of several large, graffiti-covered, faux-brick fabric walls, looking out onto the street. By placing this image of herself, an African-American woman in a re-creation of one of Philadelphia’s struggling neighborhoods, right in the foreground, Wilson sets down the coordinates of race and class in which her work is meant to be read.
Wilson, originally from Chicago and currently of New Mexico, spent some time exploring the outlying regions of the city. It seems that as she roamed our streets, she found signs of class relations encoded in our very buildings.
Through the windows of her run-down fabric rowhomes, you can see an Italian villa with expansive pools, lavish gardens and decorative fountains, a vision of excess in a frame of urban decay. In the villa, painted and printed images of multiracial young subjects participate in Caligula- like debauchery, complete with a jokingly cliched backdrop of Roman baths and Grecian urns. It’s a bawdy callback to neoclassicalism and its symbols of economic privilege, and a comment on materialism in the modern landscape.
The brick walls and covered windows are the reality; the open windows and interior images can be seen as the shared dreams of those living within. Everyone, the work seems to say, not just the wealthy, has been inundated via movies, music and TV with the message that fulfillment can be found in the external signs of material wealth.
Even the Greco-Roman imagery in the fantasies has been imported from the dominant, Eurocentric culture. Not only have the inhabitants of this fabric ghetto had their physical lives hobbled from the start by asymmetric distribution of privileges, but even their imaginations have been colonized by a European vision of happiness and fulfillment.
Wilson presents her aestheticized interpretation of the imagination of the urban poor in a wealthy institution funded by wealthy individuals. I fear her work could feed that romantic longing of the privileged to really understand urban poverty, to go back to one’s privilege at the end of the day displaying nuggets of wisdom about what it’s really like to be poor. (This is well-illustrated by those who didn’t grow up in urban poverty knowingly asserting that The Wire really hit the nail on the head.)
Inner-city poverty is bleak and brutal. Some manage to escape, but most struggle to get by. Wilson’s enigmatic wish-windows function as a whimsical, palatable Other for those who are privileged, but may be less charming for those who aren't.
Paula Wilson: First Story
Through early fall.
Fabric Workshop and Museum
1214 Arch St.
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2