Cherished: Visionaries & Voices

By Hannah Leow 

Cherished: a Michael Wilson Collaboration with Visionaries & Voices, Northside Gallery

Pictures hung (centered) at 57 inches

Audience kept at a distance

Important art in glass cases

Keep everything quiet

Lights must be blinding 

This is the manifesto I imagine persisting through museums across forever. It creates the very felt culture that leaves gallery goers wondering how to engage with art when such measures have been taken to protect it from them.    

Undoing this institutionalized austerity is artist Michael Wilson in his exhibition Cherished. A compilation of portraits, Wilson photographs the artists and staff of Northside’s Visionaries + Voices, an alternative and inclusive art studio for creatives with disabilities. While they’re lovely on their own, the portraits themselves are not autonomous; they live through the light of a viewing table or alongside an audio bit designed by collaborating artist Henry Wilson.  

By re-writing the gallery narrative, Wilson renders not only his story as a maker and creator, but the story of the people he’s embodied through film and frames. Up close and deeply personal, Cherished is not so much a presentation as it is an invitation for both the willing and estranged.  

“Is It Up?” 

Image courtesy of Nick Norman

Was the question I asked myself upon arriving to the space. Fixed on one side of the gallery were tables lining the wall with bins of photographs resting on top, stowed as if the work had already been dismantled from it’s white-cube installation. But in Cherished, the walls were never their home to begin with. Housed in wooden crates, the prints and portraits lean upright on one another, reposed in file form to be peered and picked through. This composition of the work is sort of the weight of the show, transforming the work across viewing plains.  

Image courtesy of Nick Norman 

By displaying his work on tables instead of walls, Wilson removes the voyeuristic (“we’re going to an art place to look at art things”) gaze from the viewer and positions them instead to have a much more reciprocal experience. His hand-written signs do this too, prescribing the intent of the pieces, which is to be moved, to be rummaged through, to be brought into the light. The transient and dynamic quality of the work is unique, the viewer given two different opportunities to see the work, but even more, see themselves in it. As you transpose the frame from bin to bar, you see a gleam of your own reflection cast upon the portrait in hand, creating this sort of synonymy between you and the subject. It’s a lovely instant that brings depth and distinction to an otherwise sentimental sorting of lives unknown to you.  

The From

Centered above the light tables is a handwritten abstract cataloguing on one side, all the participants who were photographed for the project, and on the other, a list of all the beloved objects that were chosen by those very participants. Connecting the name on the left to the nostalgia on the right are lines that move laterally across the gallery wall. Aesthetically the lineation adds a lovely element to the composite of work; something drawn and contoured and impressively proportioned.    

Images courtesy of Nick Norman
Images courtesy of Nick Norman

As your eyes move down the list, you learn not only the “what” of the object, but for some, you learn the “from”.  Objects not only important to individuals for personal reasons (art made, accolades received, adolescence remembered) but some that are representative or in the absence of others (a tangible condolence, memories materialized). This distillation creates a very poignant and moving moment in the show where the viewer is let into the intimate archives of the subject’s lives. It, too, accomplishes what Wilson seems to be subtly working toward throughout the entire exhibition, which is to let the viewer in to his process of making. It feels like a page ripped right out of Wilson’s sketchbook, scaled-up and unconfined for all to see and consider.  

Points of Accessibility 

Accompanying ten gelatin silver prints is an interactive audio station, one where the photograph itself initiates the corresponding audio when placed above the artist’s name. While the audio was not running when I went to see the show (I was told offhand that it was the best part) I appreciated the idea of it for an un-art related reason.

Image courtesy of Nick Norman

With V+V being home to near 150 artists with varying abilities, the space itself is intended to be inclusive to a wide range of people both with unique realities and also profound possibilities. The sound installation caters to senses other than sight, offering an art experience not just for the eyes, but for the ears, too, and all the other inner-workings that pulsate inside you. The images themselves do this too in their moveability, their tactility, their near literal asking (or the signs denoting) to “Please Touch Me”. This multi-sensory immersion makes Cherished one that is not only wholly felt, but one that is approachable and accessible and appropriately so.

Makeshift Matters 

There’s a direct correlation between the dichotomy found in Wilson’s photographs to his personal process found in exhibiting and curating. How could something so worn be so lovely? How could something makeshift really matter?  As the subjects pose with ephemera that is fleeting but steadfast, you see a resilience in these objects and the emotive quality to them. The same goes for Wilson’s artistry and its strange but lovely congruence. 

Image courtesy of Nick Norman

His materials are raw but deftly crafted. His mechanics exposed but by way of intent. His aesthetic is unpretentious but artfully so. There’s an understated mastery that really holds it all together and is the thing that makes Cherished such an open and impeccable body of work.  

What will you hold dear?

Visionaries & Voices, Northside Gallery, 3841 Spring Grove Ave.