Face to Face with Martha Wilson

By schwartzsa | September 25, 2012

By Sarah R. Schwartz ’10

Before meeting Martha Wilson, I ducked into the Arcadia University Art Gallery to see the artist’s work up-close. Inside I found myself surrounded by dozens of her insinuating self-portraits, many of which show her role-playing or in costume, invading the personas of everyone from punk rock personalities to political figures. I saw her likeness (aslant) on nearly every wall but wondered what of her true identity. Who is Martha Wilson?

Peering up at one of the larger installations in the Gallery, Tipper Gore’s Advice for the 90s, I immediately recognized the woman behind the Parental Advisory stickers that plagued my pre-teen expeditions to the music retailer Sam Goody. On a table in the middle of the room, three TVs looped short films cataloging Wilson’s other presidential impersonations, reflecting battles Wilson waged to protect freedom of speech and expose the biases of political ideologies.

On the other side of the table lay 40 artist books, the first art form supported by the non-profit, artist–run gallery Franklin Furnace, which Wilson founded in 1976. The pages represent thousands of boundary-pushing works that might never have reached an audience without Wilson’s support.

Among all the photos, videos and other media I discovered in the exhibition, I kept returning to Posturing: Age Transformation. In the photo, a 25-year-old Martha Wilson poses as a 50-year-old woman posing as a 25-year-old woman. She is carefully seated to exhibit her slender, sumptuous physique. I took note of her mirror-rehearsed expression, its calculated balance—equal parts joie de vivre and wrinkle-reducing surprise. But her eyes reveal a brittle battle: Wilson, 25, summons memories of years yet unlived that Wilson, 50, struggles to dismiss.

The black typewritten text that accompanies the photo and Wilson’s handwritten signature states: “I was uncomfortable dressing like a middle-aged female, which I take to be an index to how much fear I have of ‘past thirty’ status in society.”

I wondered: If the success of performance art lies in the convergence of art and life, what had the years brought for Wilson?

Face to Face with the Artist

The next day I joined Jessica Perlitz’s Studio Art Foundations students in the Gallery. As they formed a circle at the far end of the space to discuss the topic of identity, I recognized Martha Wilson in the group. My first impression: This “boomer” really knows how to rock a dual chromatic punk-chic coif. (Envy ensued.)

Both striking and affable, Wilson led individual critiques and discussion, shedding light on internal projections and external perceptions—the murky kaleidoscope of the self.  Each student presented the previous night’s homework, an 8” x 11” self-portrait revealing an image that resisted their own identity. These alternate selves—these what-ifs—included a sullen goth in black lipstick, a primping attention-magnet, a seething rage-aholic, all so different from the faces in front of me.

Asked how they felt when they tried on these personas, some students were alarmed by their transformations, realizing that they weren’t just impersonating a type, but rather they were discovering unexplored characteristics within themselves. Wilson made connections to her own explorations in A Portfolio of Models, in which she poses as Earth Mother, Goddess and Working Girl archetypes. It’s an exercise upon which Wilson has built a career.

“Performing for a camera is performing for an audience of one,” said Wilson. “It’s for your own internal sense of audience not for the crowd of people.” Form determines feeling, posturing allows one to recognize and experience a new emotion.

While discussing censorship and Tipper Gore (former second lady of the United States and co-founder of the Parents Music Resource Center), students began to address issues that affect their generation—the death of chivalry, the Occupy movement, the War on Terror. The question arose: How could their artistic voices shape current events? When class ended, they left the Gallery with a new understanding of the function of art in society, and perhaps even a platform to begin their own transformations.

So maybe the question is not, “Who is Martha Wilson?” but rather “What has Wilson made possible?” What have her explorations and critiques of social identity, stereotypes and political ideology made possible for generation Y? How will her work at Franklin Furnace inspire future generations?

I find that I’m reading and rereading the exhibition Martha Wilson: Staging the Self as a deconstructionist künstlerroman, where Wilson’s “coming-of-age” can only be found in the negative spaces her alter egos create.

Martha Wilson: Staging the Self will run through Nov. 4. in the Arcadia University Art Gallery. Read more about the exhibition.

Speaking Candidly

I caught up with Wilson during an afternoon sound check in the Commons Great Room. We discussed recent projects, the function of art and the Guerrilla Girls.

SS: Your show comes to us at a particularly interesting time in the midst of the Party’s National Conventions. Let’s chat about female representation in the White House…

MW: I tried Ronald Reagan for one video that I made for SOHO TV and then I did Nancy for the Taller Latin Americano protest against U.S. intervention in Central America and I thought, ‘This is great! She’s so empty. I can make her say anything I want!’ And I would just read the paper and underline stuff that she had actually said and done. Scripts were really easy to write. I love Nancy, you know—“Cancer is the natural response to the environment!”

So I was Nancy for as long as I could be, then I kind of reluctantly did Barbara. I didn’t know what to do with Barbara, but then the Clinton years came along.

[When] George W. Bush was elected and I thought being the mother of the president was a pretty good gig. I still do Barbara, but she’s all washed up. However, I sincerely believe that she is the smartest person in the family and runs the show. She wears the pants in the family.

SS: Any reactions to media coverage of Michelle Obama?

MW: It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Michelle was the arbiter behind the curtain there. She’s not deciding on national policy, but I’m sure they talk about it all the time. She’s not a stupid girl. I totally love her as a first lady—maybe she’ll run in 2016?

SS: Any plans to impersonate Ann Romney?

MW: After Tipper, people were trying to get me to be the other Martha—Martha Stewart. But I don’t know. I’m sticking to [Mrs. Bush] because I look like her and I have this great wig. It’s totally Barbara—I don’t know about Ann Romney.

SS: Does the avant-garde still exist?

MW: My board and I had a debate about the use of the term avant-garde which is identified as the art of the teens and 20s of the twentieth century. But I believe that we have really not improved upon that stuff very much. We’re still using the page as an art space. We’re still using broadcast as our goal. We’re considering the regular folk to be our audience instead of the Queens and the Kings of our society. We’re using any medium that conveys the idea appropriately. They didn’t have film but when they did started to use it. Now that we have the Internet, artists are going nuts; they’re having a wonderful time. So it’s more of an attitude than it is a particular form.

There was a trend which we were participating in to call contemporary avant-garde art “Variable Media” art. But we had just dropped it. We decided, the medium is not the important thing at all. It’s the concept driven nature of the work that will [make] use [of] any medium that it needs to get itself done.

SS: What are some of the most progressive boundaries of contemporary culture? What, in your opinion, still needs to be said?

MW: I don’t know. Artists still come up with stuff. It’s amazing what still needs to be said. An artist having a baby in a gallery is the first time that it’s ever happened as far as I know.

The artist stands outside of society. It’s like… ‘Stella! Stella!’ or Benjamin in the Graduate banging on the glass window. You know, you’re on the outside beating on this plate glass window. You can see perfectly clearly through the window, but you can’t get in. [An artist] can’t be an unaware member of society, you have to be slightly outside all the time. And that’s a very important role. The role that artists fill is not given credence by the people who are on the inside because it’s uncomfortable. Nobody wants to know they’re on the wrong track. They’d much prefer that you’d shut the heck up and let me go ahead and put my money in an offshore account. [Artists] critique the society in all of its aspects and that’s always been the job of artists—Russian artists who just got hauled off to jail—Pussy Riot—were critiquing their political system. How dare they?! We’re going to put them in fucking jail! Two of them just ran away—they took off.

In China, Ai Weiwei is considered to be a social menace, and they keep track of him because artists, sure enough, they introduce ideas into the fabric of society that then spread out and change the hearts and minds of people. That’s [the government’s] worst fear …. It’s the constant job of artists to try to see the world differently and to let the people know how it looks differently.

SS: Are you or were you ever a Guerrilla Girl?

MW: Will I get hauled up in front of a panel in Congress if I answer the question? [laughter] No comment.