Martha Wilson has been actively planting subversive humor, sincere truths, and questions of conformity, feminism, self and politics in the art world for over 40 years. Her self-titled retrospective, that recently on view at Pitzer College as organized by the Independent Curators International (ICI) and guest curator Peter Dykhuis, culls together her prominent practice as an artist who continues to wear multiple hats of performer, archivist, feminist, activist, director, lecturer, and organizer while continuously pushing the boundaries of what is the artist and what is the artist’s role in society.
Starting with her early video performances, image/text pieces of the 1970s as a young artist in Halifax, Canada present a look into her performing the subjective role of the feminine in a still male-dominant conceptualism movement and art world objectivity. Early works such as “Art Sucks” (1972) address the double bind of the female artist’s wish, although subordinate to the male artist, to reclaim her identity through the very thing that has removed herself from it: art. In the piece, now preserved in a simple black-and-white video format of the artist sitting at a desk, Wilson begins with the premise “Art making sucks identity from individuals who are close to it but not participating themselves and the only way to recover identity is to make art yourself” proceeding to ingest a photograph she took of her partner, a male artist, in attempt to recover her own identity becoming his equal in power and, in doing so, creating her own art.
Through the dressing, undressing, cross-dressing and role playing of the feminine and masculine Wilson continues to subsume her role as a being in between worlds through the role of the artist. “A Portfolio of Models” (1974) explores social categories through six feminine archetypes of Goddess, Housewife, Working Girl, Professional, Earth Mother, and Lesbian in both image and text corresponding to the given roles while concluding that the exhaustiveness and limitations of the artificial nuances leaves her to “be an artist and point the finger at her own predicament” and operating as artist “when all other values are rejected.”
Aside from her personal discourse and practice, Wilson has played a seminal role as the founder and director of Franklin Furnace, an alternative art space that has acted as the brave facilitator of groundbreaking and challenging exhibitions and performances in New York such as Tehching Hsieh’s “One Year Performance” (1981-1982) or William Pope L.’s “How Much for that Nigger in the Window?”(1990-1991) and today still operates as archive and grants supporter keeping to its mission to make the world safe for avant-garde art! These artists involved in Franklin Furnace —then and now— continue to question the capacity of art, carving truthful, poignant responses to the political, social and artistic challenges of our environment. To conclude with the words of Martha Wilson in a video plea on YouTube titled “Confrontational Art”(2010), however not included in her retrospective but available for the masses, sums up the artist as active participant to its environment, the artist beyond mere aesthetics of value but as imposing challenges, questions and problems to the public norms. Despite Martha’s varied performative roles and attributions, whether poised in humor or seriousness, her sincerity and truth rings to the highest of notes as is the absolute necessity of her words in the current day: “Artists who confront public taste should receive public grant support. This is because the artist can, do, and should change cultural discourse with their ideas.”
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-Contributed by Brigitte Nicole Grice