In 1932, the French proto-feminist writer and stage performer Colette wrote of witnessing a woman removing her makeup, “I have never felt so much esteem for a woman . . . her face stripped of its secrets, rich with expression, so various beneath its agile wrinkles. . . . Oh, brave fighters!” The remark resonates with the work in Martha Wilson’s recent exhibition at P.P.O.W., which, among its accomplishments, cleverly confronted society’s youth obsession.
Wilson began exploring shifting identities in the early 1970s with her “Posturing” series, photo-and-text pieces in which she often assumed a character trying to appear as someone else. In a 2011 interview, she said Posturing: Drag (1972), for instance, is a portrait of herself “as a woman trying to think about what it would be like to be a man trying to look like a woman.” She described such works as “experiments in personality,” asking, “Does makeup embolden expression, inhibit expression? Does it operate like a mask?” In 1976, Wilson founded the pioneering Franklin Furnace, a gallery dedicated to exhibiting artists’ books, installation and performance art (and now existing as an online archive administered by Pratt Institute’s library studies department).
With the recent work on view in this exhibition, Wilson continued her use of costumed portraiture to demonstrate the idea of self as a malleable social construct. I’m Going to Die (2014) is a C-print of Wilson wearing a gray T-shirt bearing the title words, her face and arms painted like a skeleton’s, the image set within a coffin-shaped frame. Here, Wilson riffs on the long tradition of “late self-portraits,” and on art historians’ tendency to fetishize such works as reckonings with mortality. Thin-skinned (2014) shows the artist in profile in an oval Regency-style frame. She peels a mask off her face (referencing her frequent use of prosthetics). Her cheek is red and blotchy, irritated by the adhesive, and her mouth is slightly downturned, conveying the discomfort of the procedure. Wilson has always embraced humor in her work as a counterpoint to the heady earnestness of much of the Conceptual art she encountered as a student in the 1960s; her quippy titles, which are often incorporated with other text in or near the photos, reveal her sardonic wit.
SELFPORTRAIT (2014) consists of snapshots and index cards, organized loosely in a single frame, documenting a recent reenactment of a 1973 participatory performance.The index cards instruct visitors to write what they think about Wilson and/or her work; she explains that their words will “create me.” The five responses included here range from dismissive (“this strikes me as pretentious”) to celebratory (“through my lens, you are the reality of now”). Wilson uses the written words of others to comment on performance art. Implicit is the idea that performance is still a suspect mode, even though it has long been institutionalized and codified.
Through types of drag, Wilson performs the artist who performs her subject. To achieve these identities, she often relies on makeup artists, photographers and digital technicians, whom she names in the accompanying didactic material, keeping the collaborative spirit of performance alive. Her enactments of various personae underscore the way one’s subjectivity is both a form of expression and a fulfillment of societal expectations. New wrinkles on the subject (2014) shows Wilson’s face up close without makeup; each crease is traced with a thin black line. She simultaneously celebrates and mocks aging by calling attention to her “agile wrinkles” and suggests, with relish, that an aging face is as viable a subject as any other.
“At 50,” George Orwell declared, “everyone has the face he deserves.” Plastic surgery and Botox notwithstanding, age leaves its imprint, a fact that continues to impact women in our culture more powerfully than men. In this hilarious and pointed exhibition, Martha Wilson revisited her youthful fear of growing old and found that aging well is the best revenge. A sometime artist whose early performance career was curtailed when she founded the legendary New York alternative space Franklin Furnace in 1976, Wilson has returned with a set of photo-based works that give a comedic spin to the feminist critique of our society’s infatuation with female youth and beauty.
The inspiration for this show was Wilson’s 1974 video Deformation, in which, at the ripe age of 24, she remade herself into a much older woman with the aid of jowl-enhancing makeup, deliberately dowdy hair-styling and unflattering camera angles. The video was paired with a photograph of Wilson today, appearing much as her younger self imagined she would. The new work’s title provided the theme for the entire show: I have become my own worst fear.
Except that, in fact, she has not. Wilson rejects a drab persona, refusing to be socially invisible (though this possibility is acknowledged in a staged photograph in which she pushes a cart through a bodega like a homeless person). Instead, as she did in performative works shown in 2008 at Mitchell Algus Gallery, she plays dress-up in a variety of attention-getting ways that mock social stereotypes, this time of older women. Here she is as Cruella De Vil, with sinisterly outlined eyes and exaggerated expressions of glee and anger; there she melds with the Mona Lisa, her not-so-mysterious smile overshadowed by a towering Marge Simpson wig. In The legs are the last to go, she dons the persona of an older suburban matron revealing her still-shapely gams. A number of works focus on hair as a means to wrestle with age, including a sequence of images recording a patch of bright red henna as it slowly grows out and is replaced by standard-issue white hair. Wilson also remakes herself to resemble Bill Clinton, reminding us that mature men may be acknowledged as still sexy when their female counterparts are not.
While the humor here is certainly accessible to all viewers, it has particular resonance for women of a certain age. This exhibition represented a welcome return of Martha Wilson the artist, who most certainly is not going to become invisible any time soon.
Photo: Martha Wilson: Growing Old (detail), 2008-09, pigmented ink prints on paper, 8 works: 21 inches square and 1 work: 35 inches square; at P.P.O.W.