Galleries

Is It Punk To Grow Old Ungracefully?

by Emily Colucci on September 19, 2011

Martha Wilson, "I have become my own worst fear" (2009), photo by Michael Katchen

On a rainy Thursday in Chelsea, I could hear the cast of the Real Housewives screeching in horror and running for their emergency stash of botox as I walked through visual artist and alternative space powerhouse Martha Wilson’s new exhibition I have become my own worst fear at PPOW Gallery. Characteristically bold, Wilson’s exhibition seems to delve into one of the last taboos of our times: women aging.

Probably best known as the founder of Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc, an alternative space dedicated to preserving artist books, temporary performance art and installations, Wilson has been a staple on the New York alternative art scene since the 1970s. This exhibition at PPOW is made up of  photographs and one video that all seem to comment on the realities of aging as a woman.

Investigating all forms of aging, Wilson’s work in I have become my own worst fear presents an in-your-face truth: the deterioration of the idealized female body and the social repercussions of being an older woman. All I could think of in the exhibit was how her work at PPOW was extremely punk. To stare back at both the young pretty gallery workers and the plastic surgery-laden collectors with a photograph like “I have become my own worst fear” (2009), Wilson places herself as the future and the rejected present of these gallery goers.

Delving into the reality of a woman’s body and presence as she ages, the works in I have become my worst fear totally lend themselves to some serious feminist critique. As someone who just graduated with a degree in “Humanities and Social Thought,” I’ve got to restrain myself to not start thumbing through some Helene Cixous, which would be utterly ridiculous. However, these works do present strong statements about the realities of an older women’s  changing body and the reflection of these changes in her role in society.

Martha Wilson,"Beauty and Beastly" (1974/2009), photographs/text (photo by author)

Presenting the changes in age, Wilson’s “Beauty and Beastly: (1974/2009) combines photographs from Wilson’s youth and current photographs. Under the older photograph, the text reads “Beastly” and under the younger photograph, it reads “Beauty.” The self-deprecating humor in the exhibition do mask a real questioning of age and the transformation of the body. Studying this photograph, I found myself comparing different parts of Wilson’s face, looking at her sagging chin-line. The changes in her form are more obvious in comparison.Where these works could be perceived as depressing, Wilson’s humor makes the show a bit lighter and works to mask the serious feminist critique.

Martha Wilson, Name-Fate, 2009, photographs/text (via ppowgallery.com)

Dressed up like former President Bill Clinton, Wilson presents the masculinity in the aging woman.  As we age, both men and women become more like each other. Almost like a more radical Cindy Sherman, Wilson dressed up like Bill Clinton is both hilarious and actually serious.  Besides the aging theme, the title of the piece reflects Wilson’s fascination with their middle names “Jefferson” and “Story,” which oddly seem to mirror their lives.

Martha Wilson, Installation of "Growing Old" (2008-9), pigmented ink print on hahnemuhle bamboo paper (photo by author)

In her Growing Old series of photographs with the beautiful “Growing Old (Chrysanthemum)” in the center, Wilson documents her greying hair over a period of time as she lets the color grow out of her hair.  Having seen Wilson in person a few times at lectures and various gallery openings, her punky half-white, half-reddish orange hair is unquestionably her trademark. Looking at the progression of her dyed hair growing out, its almost as if she is barely recognizable with the grey hair.

Martha Wilson, "Invisible" (2011), color photograph/text (photo by author)

In “Invisible” (2011), Wilson, hiding her recognizable hair, dresses in sloppy clothes in a bodega. Unreadable as male or female, Wilson does appear to recede into the dingy background.  Many older women, or so I’ve been told by a few family members, feel completely invisible.

Martha Wilson, Marge/Martha/Mona, 2009, pigmented ink print on canvas (via ppowgallery.com)

Even though Wilson does explore serious topics about feminism and age, Wilson’s sense of humor like in “Marge/Martha/Mona” (2009) really shines through these works. The ability to make light of what could be a possibly shrill, whiny exhibition about aging is why Wilson is such a strong artist and personality.

While other artists such as Marina Abramović have confronted their own aging, Wilson’s humor makes it more palatable. Blunt and in-your-face, Wilson’s take on aging seems to be fairly punk. Not trying to appear beautiful or perfect, Wilson presents some of the most horrible photographs of herself in the PPOW exhibition.

This raises my question: Is it punk to age ungracefully? Certainly most, if not all, of the male punk musicians have managed to do it. For a woman, it seems like throwing your aging body in the face of the general public like Wilson has done is completely punk.

Now I know my plans for when I’m older: forget the botox and bring on the Manic Panic.

Martha Wilson’s I have become my own worst fear will be at the PPOW Gallery until October 8, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    As an aging hipster, I totally agree with  being invisible as an older, 59 year old, woman!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Emily-Elizabeth-Hochman/1090196863 Emily Elizabeth Hochman

    i used to be a head-turner and over the past 5 years or so all the attention stopped.  On the one hand I kind of used to hate feeling objectified but on the other hand i’m like “what am i now chopped liver?”  It’s really started to get to me.  i’m stressing over wrinkles constantly and worrying about my husband losing his attraction to me as we age even though he is in no way superficial.  this show will be pertinent to anybody worrying about losing their sexual currency as they age.

  • Anonymous

    “Not trying to appear beautiful or perfect, Wilson presents some of the
    most horrible photographs of herself in the PPOW exhibition.” Yes, but no, but yes, but no…… These  are not horrible photographs, these are photos she intended to make and has selected. They are very intentional. This is something Martha Wilson has been working with for decades – look at the early ‘Perfection/Imperfection’ work, where she used makeup as it ‘should ‘ be used (to hide freckles and spots, darken eye sockets, etc) and to do the opposite (increase bags under the eyes, highlight spots, etc). Images such as ‘Name Fate’ or ‘Worst Fear’ are Wilson at her most subversive. Love.

  • Den Hickey

    Injecting the idea of being “punk”.. whatever the hell that means in this context… into a discussion of art.  Nice.

  • http://twitter.com/j_d_hastings The_real_jd_hastings

    I’ve been interested lately in the idea that aging is itself an aging phenomenon. There’s been such an increase in technology, surgery and products to combat self-aging in the last 30-50 years, as well as an up-tick in beauty culture and youth oriented culture that I’ve noticed over my lifetime the average American visually ages differently than they used to. It’s more focused towards females, but men haven’t escaped. Peoples’ attempts at fighting off aging don’t always make them look younger, but they don’t necessarily end up looking like they’d have looked at the same age in 1960. The result is that the appearance of aging itself is different and will continue to change as technologies and science do.

    I don’t really know if I’m qualified to make a value judgment about the phenomenon as good or bad. The strict line of “aging gracefully” v. whatever the alternative seems to be won’t end up as clear cut as it may seem to be. Botox et. al. are used as synonymous with vanity, but when Just For Men’s ads explicitly frame themselves as the only way older men can compete for jobs.  If people actually believe they have to choose between intangible integrity and tangible social benefits, it’s harder to judge than when I see a bunch of privileged wealthy people simply refusing to let go of their glorified idealized selves.  As the options that are available to people continue to become cheaper/ more effective, our relationship to aging – as well as as how it visibly represents itself will continue to develop along these lines. Maybe if we had better perspective about our time on Earth at every point in our lives we’d deal with this process better, but I’m too old to believe that humanity won’t buy a cheap fix over greater self-discipline and insight every time.

  • Anonymous

    I am always preaching, yes preaching, to women friends of all ages, to NOT buy into the stupidity of trying to look young(er), whether it’s covering grey, or plastic surgery…or any of the other superficial trappings of youth.  And lately it applies to men too.  You might as well wear a sign that reads “I’m shallow and desperate!”  It’s all so antithetical to actually “feeling good about yourself”…as those who do it claim.  My hope has been that “Artists” won’t go that route.  

  • Anonymous

    actually I don’t get the question “Is it punk to grow old ungracefully”.  You mean it’s ungraceful to do it naturally?  Maybe you are referring to the “throwing in front of the public” as “punk”.  Or maybe I’m missing the information that aging punksters are getting face lifts.  Please expand….?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Elizabeth-Ruskin-Shanklin/504036738 Elizabeth Ruskin Shanklin

    As an aging artist and therapist, looking at it both ways, aging without apology is definitely punk and it is definitely poverty.  The effects of poverty and struggle and trauma are eventually it’s beauty.  This kind of beauty unfortunately has little status because it is in it’s experience not the expenditure as proof of genetic superiority and $$$$$$, i. e winning, yes?  But, the laugh is always that we’re ending up in the same place at the end of the race. And thanks Martha, you are one brave honest artist.  Got time for coffee?

  • Anonymous

    i so appreciate hyperallergic covering martha willson’s show, but there seems to be some confusion on colucci’s part surrounding the idea of critique, and specifically of  feminist critique.  as in:  ”…the works in I have become my worst fear totally lend themselves to some serious feminist critique.”  the works in this show do not *lend* themselves to feminist critique, they *are* feminist critique.  
    and then:  ”…Wilson’s humor makes the show a bit lighter and works to mask the serious feminist critique.”  no:  wilson’s humor does not *mask* “the serious feminist critique.”  humor is itself a strategy of feminist critique!
    colucci does herself no favors by mentioning that she has just graduated with a degree in “humanities and social thought.” i don’t even understand the reference to helen cixous, whose work does not make any sense with respect to wilson’s.  is that the only feminist theorist she’s heard of?  ugh.  check out the martha wilson sourcebook that has just been published by independent curators international.  lots of great feminist texts included there.

    • Anonymous

      I deliberately chose not to do an academic essay about Wilson’s work, art and feminism.  The references to Cixous and my degree were made to be funny rather than a serious example of my knowledge of feminism (which I know enough of to know its extreme limitations and chose not to really delve that deep into it on purpose). If humor is a feminist strategy, I say we use it.

  • Anonymous

    Is it punk to grow old– period? In today’s society, growing old naturally is punk. Doing disfiguring things like Botox and fillers is socially accepted. How weird is that? Wilson’s radical act is showing us what is in front of us but what we neglect to see: that our older faces and bodies are different, masculine, less sexually attractive and, therefore, invisible. But we are here.

    Being here at my age and showing myself is a radical act. These are not horrible images. They are real.

    We’re here, we’re old, get used to it!

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