Martha Wilson: Staging the Self
ARCADIA UNIVERSITY GALLERY
“THE ARTIST OPERATES OUT OF THE VACUUM LEFT WHEN ALL OTHER VALUES ARE REJECTED,” notes Martha Wilson in her early photo-text composition A Portfolio of Models, 1974. Referring to her negotiation and subsequent refusal of cookie-cutter female identities—from “housewife” to “lesbian”—the statement also works as a concise thesis for her interdisciplinary, activist practice. Part of a curatorial project from Independent Curators International, which also generated the Martha Wilson Sourcebook, 2011, Wilson’s traveling retrospective kicked off in Montreal and tracks four decades of her development as an artist, writer, punk singer, collector, and founder-director of the alternative New York space Franklin Furnace.
Working deftly with selections from a vast archive of materials collated by curator Peter Dykhuis, director Richard Torchia has installed an elegant, visual chronology and reference library within Arcadia University’s compact gallery. Particularly dazzling gems are to be found in three distinct groupings of short videos displayed on three monitors, focusing on the artist’s early-1970s work in Halifax, Canada; her 1980s performances with feminist art-punk gang DISBAND; and her later individual practice. Grainy, black-and-white videotape captures oddly cheery, narrated performances such as Deformation, 1974, in which the artist becomes progressively more vulnerable and ugly with the help of makeup and lighting. More recent works like Wilson’s politicized drag acts—where she poses in wigs and pearls as madcap versions of First and Second Ladies—are darkly comedic and raise crucial questions about arts funding, censorship, and the social value of creative work.
A wall-based, multimedia time line traces Franklin Furnace’s evolution from an artists’ publication archive, founded in 1976, to a pioneering, Web-based advocate for ephemeral and “politically unpopular” art. Images of Ana Mendieta’s bloody gestures, Karen Finley’s scrawled commentaries on abuse, and Tehching Hsieh’s yearlong performance of homelessness are reminders that Wilson supported radical practice long before its institutional acceptance. Utilizing diverse technologies that speak to specific historical moments—screenprinted T-shirts, looped analog video, well-stocked slide carousels, and iPads streaming Vimeo.com—“Staging the Self” casts Wilson as being savvy to the ever-shifting ways in which values are mediated while doggedly preserving safe spaces for alternative forms of art and life.
artforum.com, September 29, 2011