Search View Archive

Out of the Furnace: Martha Wilson's Feminist Critique

Mitchell Algus Gallery March 23 - April 22, 2008

<i>Martha Wilson, A Portfolio of Models </i><i>(The Working Girl), 1974</i>
Martha Wilson, A Portfolio of Models (The Working Girl), 1974

Although Martha Wilson is one of the most important figures in experimental art and a famous conservator of avant-garde art in New York, she kept her own pioneering conceptual photo/text work to herself, in the proverbial “suitcase under the bed,” rarely exhibiting it except for an occasional group show. But finally, 37 years after the fact, 16 of these pieces are at the Mitchell Algus Gallery, and they are provoking spirited reactions among the connoisseurs.

A multi-disciplinary artist, Wilson in 1976 founded Franklin Furnace, the legendary downtown gallery, documenting and presenting artists’ books and performances for several decades. In 1997, MoMA acquired the book collection, and Wilson moved the center into cyberspace. The works in her first one-person show are from an early period when she was teaching English at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design (1970-1974) alongside David Askevold (1940-2008), an experimental artist from Nova Scotia. As an art teacher in the 1970s, Askevold developed the Projects Class, “the most innovative and interesting aspect of the NSCAD curriculum of the period,” according to Gil McElroy in ARTSatlantic (1996).

Askevold invited Lawrence Weiner, Robert Barry, Robert Smithson, Joseph Kosuth, and Mel Bochner to submit projects for his students. This was a highly regarded program emphasizing cutting-edge conceptual work, and Martha Wilson often participated with her collaborator, the photographer Richards Jarden. Together they created conceptual-performances, some of which are documented in photos and text in this show.

Wilson’s works are simultaneously conceptual art and a self-documentation . For example, “Selfportrait” (1973) is a color photo of Wilson on an empty stage, sitting on a tall stool, with short hair, wearing white bell-bottom pants, a sweater patterned with pandas, and high heeled boots. But her commentary on the piece is unexpectedly conceptual: “Appearance equals reality, such that ‘self’ depends not on who you think you are, but on who others think you appear to be. Audience members wrote their impressions of me on 4 × 6 cards, which, when exhibited, formed a portrait of the audience.”

Wilson’s early conceptual works, such as “Painted Lady” (1972), “Facial” (1972), “Images of my Perfection/ Images of my Deformity” (1973), “Staged Suicide” (1974), “Posturing Male Impersonato” (1972) and “Breast Forms Permutated” (1972), were surreal combinations of body art, feminist art statements and conceptual performances. Her works contain layered meanings; her composed facial expressions create an absurd dada theater along with pointed critique.

In the photograph “Captivating a Man” (1972), the accompanying text reads: “A reversal of the means by which a woman captivates a man: I have dressed up Richards Jarden as Marcel Duchamp’s female persona, Rrose Selavy.” Of course, it is worthwhile to remember Duchamp’s pun in translation: “Eros! Such is life!” and that Man Ray’s photographs started gender-bending conceptual art.

Wilson’s inquiries into identity and gender bending, such as “Male Impersonator (Butch)” (1973), a color photograph by Richards Jarden, shows her as a boy with a caption that states: “This was my unsuccessful effort to ‘pass’ as a man in a men’s room in Halifax, Nova Scotia; men took one look at me and said. ‘Get out.’” This was comedy and avant-garde art mixed together, though not recognized as such at that time.

Other photographers collaborated with Wilson. For the piece called “Posturing: Drag” (1972), created with Doug Waterman, the text notes: “An experiment in sex transformation: I am pretending to be a man dressing up as a woman by wearing a wig, false eyelashes, false fingernails, makeup.” And Alan Comfort took the photos for ”I make the Image of My Perfection” and “I make the Image of My Deformity” (1974), which are included on the front and back cover of the exhibition catalogue (which also features a scholarly text/essay by Jane Wark).

Wilson’s explorations in self-investigation continued with ”Forms of Emotions” (1973), where her commentary states, “These photographs reconstruct images I see behind my eyelids, images that represent or embody through their forms emotional states: 1. Embarrassment, 2. Compulsive, 3. Ecstatic, 4. Frustrated, 5. Shy, 6. Competent.”

“Portfolio of Models” are a series of black-and-white photos of Wilson mimicking the female stereotypes by dressing in costumes of different professions and social classes: the goddess in light silk pajamas; a housewife in a skirt, silk shirt and cardigan sweater, holding a cup of coffee; a working girl with wig and high heels, suit and hat; an earth mother in a head scarf and long dress; and a lesbian in jeans, shiny boots, a sweater and a glossy silk jacket.

After Wilson left Halifax for New York, she continued to be active as a performance artist into the 1990s. She was a founding member of the all-girl vaudeville punk rock group Disband (1978-1982), a video of which was recently featured in Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution at PS1, and in the 1980s she began a series of satirical performances (recorded on video) in which she impersonated high-profile political figures such as Nancy Regan, Barbara Bush and Tipper Gore.

Martha Wilson’s one-woman show was long overdue, so it becomes an instantly important “her-storical” reappraisal of her pioneering efforts in conceptual self-representation, an investigation of identity and gendered subjectivity, a response to “camera presence,” and a statement on sexuality and the freedom of lesbian expression.


Valery Oisteanu


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

All Issues