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What is the measure of a successful artistic career? Is it the validation gleaned from an institutional retrospective, or soaring prices for one’s work on the auction block? Or can the measure of success be qualified by the knowledge that one’s life’s work, the likes of which has effectively influenced an entire generation, will be preserved long after our time on this plane has passed? Martha Wilson: Downtown, a modest but thoughtful retrospective survey organized by Independent Curators International (ICI) and Peter Dykhuis at NYU’s Fales Library, commemorates such a career.

Martha Wilson, “Growing Old” (2008 – 09). Pigmented ink print on hahnemuhle bamboo paper, 54 × 54 ̋.
On View
Nyu Fales Library
February 19 – April 30, 2015
New York

Wilson is the founder of Franklin Furnace, the inveterate space for avant-garde and time-based visual art that, since its opening in 1976, has served as a locus for challenging and ephemeral work. The organization has enjoyed the spotlight this spring with two other concurrent exhibitions devoted to its history and programming, one at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery and a second, featuring a series of performances, at Participant Inc. Franklin Furnace recently joined forces with the Pratt Institute, a move that will ensure the longevity of its mission and the preservation of its extensive archives. It is an exciting time for the organization, yet none of this would be possible without the vision of one incredibly inspiring and determined woman.

Wilson’s decades-long practice, which consists largely of performance, photo-text works, and writing, began in the early ’70s. Having moved to New York from Halifax in 1974, Wilson immediately set upon a path that separated her from her male conceptualist peers, situating her early performance works within the arena of feminist politics. With a background in English literature, the young Wilson utilized the element of language in these early pieces to flesh out the terrain between identity and reproduction, and particularly, the notion of feminine visibility in a male dominated art world. In “Art Sucks” (1972), Wilson sits at a table, speaking and slowly ingesting pieces of photographic paper. “Art making is a process which sucks identity from individuals who are close to it but not participating themselves,” she says in deadpan delivery. “The only way to recover identity is to make art yourself.” In one black-and-white film clip after another, screened on a continuous loop in the gallery’s main exhibition space, we witness Wilson return to this question, consistently conflating, often through the lens of wry humor, the battleground between artistic agency, gender, and ego.

The distancing effect of forced behavior and its implication in the formation of gender identity—the discrepancy between one’s projected and internal state—is also a recurring site of exploration in many of Wilson’s photo-text projects, made between 1971 and 1974. The earliest series, Posturing, plays with such gender-based role reversal, with Wilson dressing in drag, impersonating a male youth, and photographing herself as a young woman trying to look old trying to look young. Each photo portrait contains an accompanying text that details the artist’s unsuccessful attempt at the transformation: “This was my unsuccessful effort to ‘pass’ as a man in Men’s Rooms in Halifax, Nova Scotia; men took one look at me and said, ‘Get out’” (“Posturing Male Impersonator [Butch]” [1973]).

Martha Wilson, “Posturing: Male Impersonator (Butch)” (1973). Color photograph, 9 × 4 1/4 ̋.

A Portfolio of Models sees Wilson sporting playfully awkward riffs on society’s feminine archetypes: “The Goddess,” “The Working Girl,” “The Housewife,” “The Professional,” “The Earth Mother,” and “The Lesbian” (all 1974), none of which, Wilson claims, “fits.” Rather, as the accompanying text explains, “The artist operates out of the vacuum left when all other values are rejected.” With these images, which predate similar explorations by Cindy Sherman by at least three years, Wilson not only challenges the then-fixed social norms surrounding gender, domestic roles, and femininity, but, through the playfulness of her performativity, counters the supposed formation of an artistic self in general, regardless of whether that self be male or female. In this, Wilson’s work is pivotal, as she lays the groundwork for a new exploration of feminist critique that up until that point had been dismissed as “essentialist.” Her probing investigations of the self and what it meant to be a woman in the world, let alone an artist, confirmed and expanded upon ideas set forth by other scholars of the time that identity was as much “a projection produced in the intermediate space between how one wants to appear and how others regard that appearance.”* The insertion of the camera, in her still works, and of the audience in her live performances, acts as a device for the enactment and discovery of this split identity, where the true mark of individuality is neither and both simultaneously. Again and again, Wilson comes back to this, either in her photo-text works, which position her as subject posing/performing for the camera’s gaze, or in her live performances where the video recorder is always on.  This “split awareness” of performance and display, as Wilson refers to it, eerily foreshadows our world of Instagram surveillance, where we are always, now, performing for some invisible “other.”

Between 1978 and 1982, Wilson was part of the all-female punk performance group DISBAND, whose core members also included Ilona Granet, Donna Henes, Ingrid Sischy, and Dianne Torr. Disruptive, raw, and semi-improvisatory, DISBAND’s use of language and cadence as a tool of activist provocation was made manifest in works like “Hey Baby,” “Missiles and Pistols,” and “Every Girl.” Many of these pieces were performed at Franklin Furnace, there being few other venues for such work in ’70s-era New York.

Portrait of Wilson as Barbara Bush (2005). Photo: Dennis W. Ho.

Also staged here were many of Wilson’s solo performances, which, from the mid ’80s onward, have a more polished, comic appeal. Rather than critique the system from the position of the margin—female, underrepresented, invisible—as she had with DISBAND and her photo-text works, with these later pieces the artist uses her aging body as the site of contradiction. Humor, Deleuze says, is the art of surfaces and doubles, and accompanied by her indefatigable command of language, Wilson employs these same tactics to deliver measured punches against the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations, impersonating first ladies Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan as a tongue-in-cheek critique of patriarchal power. During the Culture Wars of the ’90s, Wilson turned her sights to Tipper Gore, assuming her conservative persona as a means of attacking the line then being fought between “freedom of expression and responsibility to society.”

Wilson is aware of the impossibility of singularity. Her prolific writings, many of which were donated to the Fales Library Collection in 2006 and are on display here, emphasize this point in passages that read “I am not a fixed quantity, I have learned that […] I can make myself anew but the elements I have to manipulate in the making are proliferate and confusing.”

The journals are personal, offering rare insight into an artist’s working process and waking thoughts, of the body and mind as a “site of contradictions which must be confronted.” One manifesto-like entry, titled “Girls’ Bill of Rights” playfully crosses out the hand-written word ‘women’ replacing it with ‘girl’ in passages like “every girl has the right to mutate […] to orgasm […] to choose a name.” Another reads, “The mission of FF is understood only by the immediate.” The same can be said of Wilson, whose uncanny ability to continuously adapt and respond to the politics of the present, in the search for artistic and self-discovery, is worth celebrating in the only way we can possibly experience her work—the equally ambiguous here and now.

* Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959).


Kara L. Rooney

Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2015

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