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In Martha Wilson’s New Photo Works, Feminism Meets the Absurd

Martha Wilson, “Bear in Mind/Bare in Hind” (2014), makeup and photograph by Bill Westmoreland (© 2015 Martha Wilson, photo of artwork courtesy of the artist and PPOW) (click to enlarge)

What do women want?

Or, to reframe that old Freudian saw with a postmodernist twist: What is it that our society and culture, and the forces that shape them, want women to want — from their families, friends and lovers; from society in general; and in and from themselves?

That question has been propelling wave after wave of feminist research, thinking and activism for many decades. It is one Martha Wilson has been exploring for years in her work and activities as an artist, arts administrator, educator, activist and mother — and one she further examines, with wry humor and fearless self-inspection, in Mona/Marcel/Marge, an exhibition of her new, photo-based works, which has just opened at PPOW in Manhattan.

In some of these works, Wilson looks not only at how women are expected to appear when they present themselves in public but also, perhaps more perniciously, at how women, reacting to such forces, end up expecting themselves to appear. A woman’s “beauty” (determined by whom, exactly?) is one of the subjects in Wilson’s sights. So is the way a woman really looks as she ages — makeup, wrinkle-reducers and hair dye be damned! — in a culture whose mass media are obsessed with sexy, youthful, female images, using them to sell everything from beer to motor oil.

Artist Martha Wilson holding “The Goddess,” from her ‘Models’ photo series (1974), in New York, September 2015 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

“A female writer I know once told me, ‘You’re showing us what we’re all afraid of,’” Wilson recalled in a recent interview at PPOW, as the works for her show were being prepared for installation.

Wilson is perhaps best known as the founding director of Franklin Furnace Archive, one of the pioneering alternative art institutions that emerged in New York in the 1970s to promote avant-garde art forms that did not fit easily into established categories

Until the late 1990s, Franklin Furnace occupied a two-level loft in an old building on Franklin Street, in Tribeca, where it mounted exhibitions, presented performance art and other events, and amassed a permanent collection of artists’ books, documentation of performances and other works that reflected what its website refers to as an interest in “time-based art of an ephemeral nature.” Often in the news during the 1990s “culture wars,” Franklin Furnace was both a launching pad for many artists who addressed controversial themes — sex, sexuality, war, censorship — and something of a bully pulpit for art-makers with progressive ideas about art, culture, society and politics.

In early 1997, after winding down its on-site programming, Franklin Furnace launched a website and became an Internet-based presenter of performance art and, in time, an online archive of material documenting many of the events it had presented in the past. (It still runs a grants-for-artists program, too.) More recently, the organization has become an independently functioning entity under the administrative umbrella of and in collaboration with Pratt Institute. Its offices are located on Pratt’s Brooklyn campus, where plans call for developing study programs in performance art and other areas that will draw on Franklin Furnace’s research resources.

Wilson was born and brought up in a Quaker family in Philadelphia, where, as an infant, her parents placed her in one of B.F. Skinner’s “air cribs.” Skinner, a Harvard University behavioral scientist, designed his glass-enclosed crib to be easy for parents to keep clean and more hygienic and comfortable for babies. Wilson went on to earn an undergraduate degree at a small college in Ohio and then a master’s degree in English literature at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She stayed on in Canada, where she taught English at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

It was the early 1970s. So-called second-wave feminism (which linked the social-cultural and political inequality of women) and the sexual revolution that had begun in the 1960s were well underway. Given her interest in writing, Wilson became inspired by the language-based conceptual art for which NSCAD had become something of a laboratory, even though she was neither a teacher nor student in its art program. Many artists and critics who were associated with the new art form passed through Halifax to present talks there.

Martha Wilson, “New Wrinkles on the Subject” (2014), makeup by Melissa Roth, photograph by Michael Katchen (© 2015 Martha Wilson, photo of artwork courtesy of the artist and PPOW)

About that era’s influences, Wilson told me, “Sol LeWitt stated, ‘When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.’ This dry approach to concept-driven art-making is precisely why I created my first work of visual art, ‘Breast Forms Permutated,’ in 1972: I was annoyed that the mostly male conceptual artists of the day were making art about stuff that did not connect with real life, so I decided to permutate a form unique to women, one that has no limits.”

In Halifax, Wilson began making artworks that brought together photographic images and brief texts in a manner that had become the documentary-flavored lingua franca of a lot of conceptual art. Serving as both a performer and research specimen, she examined the female self — common images and roles of women in society, their behavior patterns and their status. Percolating just under the surface of her images was a combined sense of desire, aspiration and self-awareness (that of women in general and Wilson’s own). In 1972, she produced “Posturing Drag,” in which she dressed up as a man impersonating a woman; her “Breast Forms Permutated” featured a grid of nine photos of female chests, accompanied by a note describing the look and character of each pair of breasts shown (“conical,” “spherical,” “pendulous”) and citing a “perfect set” in the middle of the composition.

Wilson’s emblematic work from this early period of her career is “A Portfolio of Models” (1974), a set of six black-and-white photos. In them, she dressed up and shot herself in the roles of “Goddess,” “Housewife,” “Working Girl,” “Professional,” “Earth Mother” and “Lesbian.” “These are the models society holds out to me,” she wrote in their accompanying, typewritten note, adding, “At one time or another, I have tried them all on for size, and none has fit.”

Martha Wilson’s “Working Girl,” from her ‘Models’ photo series (1974), on display at New York University’s Fales Library in early 2015 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In the early 1970s, in North America and Europe, such artists as Judy Chicago, Eleanor Antin, Suzy Lake, Martha Rosler and others were similarly exploring women’s traditional social roles and portrayals in art and the media, as well as the nature of “women’s work.” Years later, a younger artist, Cindy Sherman, would mix postmodern irony with the spirit of those earlier feminist investigations in her “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-1980), in which she photographed herself in the poses of actresses in familiar, movie-genre roles.

Wilson and several collaborators produced the new works on view at PPOW, and her current show picks up where her last one there, in 2011, left off. That earlier presentation, titled I have become my own worst fear, looked at aging with grace and humor. In it, Wilson depicted herself as a mash-up of the Mona Lisa and Marge Simpson, as an older Bill Clinton and as a homeless woman seeking shelter in a New York bodega. In her latest works, the humor is back (she appears this time as “Mona/Marcel/Marge,” her earlier image now bearing a Duchampian moustache), although the laughs come wrapped in a candid — but not bitter or cynical — understanding of how restrictive traditional assumptions about the aging female body can be.

In “New Wrinkles on the Subject” (2014), makeup exaggerates the natural lines on Wilson’s face in violation of the “beauty code” that urges older women to camouflage telltale signs of age. “Beauty is in the Eye” (2014) offers a close-up of her eyes, one of which is untouched, the other made up with over-the-top, fashion-runway color. In fact, the shape of her bulging eyes and the tone of her skin are remarkable in this image, in which only a section of her face appears as some kind of scientific specimen.

Michael Katchen, who has long collaborated with Wilson, shot both photos. He explained, “For ‘New Wrinkles…,’ the lighting is a little harsher, and the black-on-black background is evocative of the Dutch Masters. Regarding facial expressions, we both decided on a neutral look.” Their goal, he said, was “not to impart obvious emotion” but rather to allow viewers to “more easily bring their [own] thoughts or emotions” to their reading of the photograph. Makeup artist Melissa Roth, who also worked on these two images, used a technique in “New Wrinkles…” that is familiar in movies to accentuate Wilson’s facial lines. Roth noted, “Martha was a good sport to sit there for a whole shoot with a face full of latex. I think what [she’s offering] in these works is a well-needed, tongue-in-cheek look at the aging process and our own mortality, fragility and individuality.”

The well-known hair and makeup artist Bill Westmoreland, who in the past worked with photographer Annie Leibovitz on American Express’s “Cardmember since…” advertising campaign and is an accomplished portrait photographer himself, collaborated with Wilson on “I’m Going to Die” (2014) and “Bear in Mind/Bare in Hind” (2014). Westmoreland did the hair and makeup for and shot both of these new photo-works, the first of which shows Wilson as a skeleton, presented in a coffin-shaped frame.

Martha Wilson, “I’m Going to Die” (2014), makeup and photograph by Bill Westmoreland (© 2015 Martha Wilson, photo of artwork courtesy of the artist and PPOW)

The second piece, a diptych, shows Wilson’s face made up to look like that of a cute panda — and also her buttocks, all creamy-white and, well, in your face like a mound of pizza dough. Westmoreland, who has shot portraits of many Broadway stars and musicians, noted, “The fact that Martha even approaches the subject of the aging body informs viewers about how ageism plays a role in the beauty business and fuels discrimination and prejudice.” He pointed out that she “did not want any retouching to alter the shape or look of her body; she wanted to make sure it was evident that she was right there under all the body paint.”

Photographer Matthew McNulty and makeup artist Diane Bainton-Kizzee worked with Wilson on “Martha Meets Michelle Halfway” (2014), one of the most provocative works in the exhibition. In keeping with Wilson’s ongoing satirizations of American presidents’ wives, and as an outgrowth of appearances she made in the role of Michelle Obama at a performance-art forum organized by the African-American performance artist Clifford Owens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a year ago, she made a photo to document the character she created at that time.

“An African-American artist friend advised me not to wear blackface,” she recalled, “but I had been impersonating First Ladies for three decades. In the end I decided to wear half no makeup and half black makeup to clearly show that it was a performance whose subject had to do with how race figured into our perception of the current First Lady. Clifford engaged the audience to get a discussion going about performativity in the room and in the culture at large.”

That notion of performance as an aspect of everyday life has long been one of the bedrock themes of feminist art. Wilson observed, “As women, we find ourselves performing all the time to meet society and the culture’s expectations about what we’re supposed to do, how we’re supposed to look, what we’re supposed to think.”

About shooting “Martha Meets Michelle Halfway,” McNulty noted, “I thought about magazine covers [showing] First Ladies [and] oil paintings that hang in the White House. This is why we chose the simple pose of an official portrait.” For Bainton-Kizzee, a black woman herself, a challenge was to create a look “that didn’t single out who Martha was” or suggest “how dare you, Martha!” but rather made it clear that Wilson admired and respected Michelle Obama, even as she satirized the country’s current, chic, organic-gardening First Lady with the perfect biceps.

Martha Wilson, “Martha Meets Michelle Halfway” (2014), makeup by Diane Bainton-Kizzee, photograph by Matthew McNulty (© 2015 Martha Wilson, photo of artwork courtesy of the artist and PPOW)

Bainton-Kizzee noted that “the make-up itself had to start the conversation” — about what this first-ever, non-white First Lady represents. At the performance-art forum, Wilson showed photos of her past representations of other First Ladies, which began in the mid-1980s with her take on Nancy Reagan. She recalled, “At first I was afraid I was going to get hit with tomatoes. But the audience learned about my history of doing political satire and critiquing the society in which we’re living. Afterward, people wanted to snap selfies with me still in costume and in character!”

There are other surprises in Wilson’s latest exhibition, but even to state their titles would be to spoil them. What can be said is that the show also includes several works that take art history as their theme, and into which the artist has folded her feminist critique in clever ways. She collaborated with Westmoreland on one of them, for which he recreated thick, vibrant, Van Gogh-like brushstrokes in a send-up of a certain well-known tableau.

Martha Wilson, “Beauty is in the Eye” (2014), makeup by Melissa Roth, photograph by Michael Katchen (© 2015 Martha Wilson, photo of artwork courtesy of the artist and PPOW)

Despite the range of different subject areas that are evident in Wilson’s show, from notions of beauty to old age and art history, they all reflect a common critical outlook. To describe it, the artist referred to a feminist-themed song by John Lennon and Yoko Ono from 1972, whose title prevented it from receiving much radio exposure at that time but struck hard at the power hierarchy feminism had dared to address head-on.

Wilson said, “The underlying subject of my work is ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World.’ So, what about that? What can we do about that? Can we ever do anything about that?” She smiled, examined vintage prints of some of her “Models” from the 1970s and quipped, “It’s the absurd position that we’re born into as women, and making it more absurd — looking at it and laughing at it — is the only way out.”

Martha Wilson’s Mona/Marcel/Marge remains on view at PPOW gallery (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 22.

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