Profile: Martha Wilson
This article is part of the Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars that intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions. Martha Wilson will speak on Wednesday, October 26, at Mills College Art Museum, in Oakland.
In addition to her early and recent work that is the subject of this article, Wilson is the founder of Franklin Furnace, whose mission is to “present, preserve, interpret, proselytize and advocate on behalf of avant-garde art, especially forms that may be vulnerable due to institutional neglect, their ephemeral nature, or politically unpopular content.”
Martha Wilson Will Be the Last to Go
Martha Wilson is not one to shy away from old age, as evidenced by her recent exhibition at P•P•O•W Gallery, in New York, which closed October 8. Entitled I have become my own worst fear, the show included the 2009 pigmented ink print The Legs are the Last To Go, a photographic image of Wilson seated on a beige couch with her skirt hiked up to just above the knees, her still-shapely legs crossed demurely at the ankles. From the knees down, Wilson is a looker. The rest of her—from her snow-white hair and ruffled collared blouse to her red print suit and bright lipstick in a matching shade— reminds one of a grandmother. This is not anyone idea’s of sexy.
Except maybe Barbara Bush’s. In a 2008 performance at PS122 in New York, Wilson, dressed in a royal-blue sequined suit and white wig, introduces herself as the former First Lady of the United States, the wife of a former U.S. president and mother of a U.S. governor (son Jeb) and of then current president George W. Bush. She proclaims, “If power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, I guess you might say I’m the sexiest woman in the free world,” and grabs her breasts to emphasize the point.
In both works, Wilson plays off societal perceptions of the aging female body, in which a woman’s allure and identity are inextricably tied to her physical image. This intertwining has been a recurring theme in Wilson’s oeuvre, dating back to the series of performances, photographs, and videos she produced from 1971 to 1974. In fact, The Legs are the Last To Go echoes in both composition and intent the 1973 photographic and text-based work Posturing: Age Transformation, in which the then twenty-five-year-old artist, attired in a satiny baby-blue pantsuit, attempts to dress like a fifty-year-old woman trying to look like a twenty-five-year-old. The text below the image notes: “I was extremely uncomfortable dressed up like a middle-aged female, which I take to be an index to how much fear I have of ‘past thirty’ status in society.”
It is crucial to note that Wilson produced many of her early, seminal works in Halifax, Canada, far removed from New York and California, the centers for feminist art production at the time. Wilson’s fellow artists at that moment were the (mostly male) Conceptual artists gathered at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and one sees how their influence came into play in her work, particularly in her utilization of language as a medium. Operating from a marginalized position as a woman, Wilson employed language as a means to break open accepted modes of signification. Text, much like the guises Wilson dons for her performances and photographs, becomes a form of drag: a means by which she signals to her audience and herself what is being offered and received, revealed and concealed. The contingencies that society places on her identity because of her gender and age are offset by the terms with which she herself presents them.
Now, nearly forty years later, the discomfort the artist expresses in donning double drag in Posturing has given way to a far more assertive, but no less constructed, persona in her more recent work. While Posturing was not included in I have become my own worst fear, in considering it against The Legs are the Last To Go, one notices the immediate difference in the artist’s body language in the two images. The young woman masquerading as a middle-aged woman effecting youth leans her head forward while the rest of her body recedes; one arm extends out while the other grips the
seat cushion uncertainly. Conversely, in The Legs are the Last To Go, the image foregrounds the artist’s legs while she leans back, one hand gripping the armrest, the other sitting passively in her lap. An overt reading of the two images together would suggest that the fear of what is to come has been replaced by the awareness of and resignation to what is left to lose. But the more relevant one (for this profile, at least) positions the shift in emphasis from face to legs as Wilson’s re-negotiation of the terms she’s bringing to the table in both asserting her identity and seeking acknowledgement of it.
For Wilson, identity has no fixed starting point but is always positioned between what is projected and what is perceived.1 She navigates between these two impulses, at the same time triangulating her internal perceptions in relation to them. Her most well-known performance foregrounding the reception of identity as the simultaneous accreditation of it is her 1973 Selfportrait, in which the artist posed on a stool and asked the audience to write down their impressions of her on note cards. But the notion also underscores Premier, an unrealized video performance conceived in 1972, in which Wilson proposes,
It is her awareness of the self’s continual re-framing and reenactment that catalyzed Wilson’s experiments in projected identity to veer into more traditionally theatrical drag, exaggerating her physical features with makeup, wigs, postures, and facial expressions, and what the art historian Jayne Wark terms “double drag”—taking on multiple, traditionally oppositional forms of identity.3 Pieces that feature the latter include Posturing, as well as works for which she adopts the guise of a man performing as a woman, such as Captivating a Man (1972). In this piece she embodies Rrose Sélavy, the female persona adopted by Marcel Duchamp and photographed by Man Ray. In the accompanying caption, she describes the ensuing identity exchanges as “[a] reversal of the means by which a woman captivates a man: the man is made attractive by the woman.”
Wilson positions her body within these types of dualities and multiplicities, whether around age or gender, in order to work toward a sense of identity that takes into account the exterior perception of that identity while simultaneously thwarting it. In the career-spanning work included in I have become my own worst fear Wilson is negotiating her aging self and the perception of her aging self not only in correspondence to her more youthful image (and to images made in her youth), but also to what those images once projected—that visibility is dependent on desirability. She utilizes the same malleable tools—hair, clothing, and makeup—with which she once projected fear over what her body might become and how others would judge her by it. But now, age is just another frame onto which she sets the scene. Martha Wilson can sit back and relax; she still has what it takes to get our attention.
The Visiting Artist Profile series is supported by the San Francisco branch of the Kadist Art Foundation. Kadist participates in the development of society through contemporary art by collecting and producing the work of artists and conducting various programs to promote their role as cultural agents. The foundation also supports the work of curators, academics, and magazines internationally through its residency program and by hosting public events on Wednesdays and a Saturday Reading Room at its space at 3295 20th Street in the Mission.