Keeping Her Composure
By Evan Senn
Walking up to the Pitzer College Art Gallery, my senses tightened up with excitement. As I am momentarily blinded by the clean white space with an assemblage of different bodies of work, the inherent 1970s aesthetic begins to envelop me. Streaming around the room, I catch tiny glimpses of enchanting feminist imagery and strong words, with calm and repetitive clicking and humming sounds of the vintage projectors and monitors creating a soundtrack for this experience.
“Martha Wilson,” I say to myself in awe. As a groundbreaking historical artist, curator and entrepreneur—Wilson was one of the most influential feminist artists in contemporary art history.
Before Cindy Sherman dominated the camera, before Guerrilla Girls had stolen the rebellious nature of feminist art and before Suzanne Lacy brought out “the quilt,” there was Martha Wilson. Wilson was frequently controversial, always busy and with a hand in everything edgy and modern in the late 1970s and ’80s art scene.
“Wilson was once denounced by Judy Chicago for ‘irresponsible demagoguery’ and described by art critic Holland Cotter as one of ‘the half-dozen most important people for art in downtown Manhattan in the 1970s,’” according to Independent Curators International (ICI).
“Martha Wilson” combines many of the artist’s different experimental practices, including her performances, documentation of her conceptual and artistic collaborations, photo-texts and videos as well as selected projects from Wilson’s legendary non-profit New York gallery space, Franklin Furnace. The exhibition is an ICI traveling show with an added collaborative component that allows each venue to further develop the show’s focus in consultation with the artist. Pitzer College Art Gallery focused more on the Franklin Furnace archives, the artist events and Wilson’s early and still-relevant gender identity-based work.
“Franklin Furnace represents one of the most important nonprofits to have emerged in New York scene since the late ’70s, as its mission was to find a place for work that challenged societal norms and heteronormativity,” Pitzer Art Gallery director Ciara Ennis says about the artist-run gallery space. “It took risks with artists and works that defied immediate aesthetic pleasure and demanded active engagement from the viewer—exactly what alternative art spaces are supposed to do.”
Wilson’s early artwork hones in on identity-based issues and interests, exploring expression, emotion and portraiture, like in her series entitled, Composure from 1972. In Composure, Wilson examines the performative qualities of expressing emotion—both natural and forced. The series explores each emotion with and without the presence of an “audience,” to determine how we “perform” our emotions for others.
Though Wilson’s artistic heyday (late 1970s to early 1980s) was a bit quieter than some other feminist artists of that time, she found a strong and influential way to connect with female viewers that still resonates with women—regardless of age, race, or sexual preference—and in turn, makes her work timeless and strong.
The exhibition shows relics of her performances in raw photographs, the documentation and experiences of projects, and the presence of true significance. Wilson’s Franklin Furnace collaborations brought larger-than-life artists out of their shell to support one another in a real, unbiased and powerful way. Artists like Barbara Kruger, Vito Acconci, Annie Sprinkle, Jenny Holzer, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Wilson and William Wegman all started out with Franklin Furnace and Martha Wilson embedded in their lives and work. Franklin Furnace is still alive and thriving as a contemporary art nonprofit in New York, with a large support group and fan base. It started out as a place to exhibit, explore and interact, and support boundary-pushing provocative artists—and it still does. Franklin Furnace’s support of underground art books and zines has changed the way books and magazines function within the realm of art.
Wilson and Franklin Furnace have a long history of exploring and discussing provocative ideas on politics, gender identity, and the complex understanding of art’s role in our lives. Wilson’s work can be inspiring and comforting as well as provocative and political, as she extends an open hand to females across the board, helping to navigate and truly understand what it is to be uniquely female. In one of her earlier works, Breast Forms Permutated, a black and white photo set from 1972, Wilson explores the objectification of breasts, and the breast-standards that are put upon us by the world. The “perfect pair” of breasts is centered in the set. Shown apart from the women the breasts belong to, this work objectifies women in a critical manner as to show the absurdity of objectification. This is a provocative and gorgeously curated exhibit showcasing an inspiring boundary-pushing artist, Martha Wilson—and a must-see show.
“Martha Wilson” at Nichols Art Gallery, Pitzer College, 1050 N. Mills Ave., Claremont, (909) 607-3143; www.pitzer.edu/offices/galleries. Thru March 22.