Martha Wilson: Activist History Teach-in
Martha Wilson: Activist History Teach-in
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Martha Wilson, Thump, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and PPOW Gallery.
Performance artist Martha Wilson, founder of Franklin Furnace, will lead a “teach-in” with a selection of activist artists from the 1960’s to the present, looking at the history of performance art as protest to consider which methods and strategies remain effective in today’s political climate. Wilson, known for her political drag performances as first ladies Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan, will perform her recent work Martha Does Donald, in which she impersonates Donald Trump. In addition, the event will include presentations by artists Ann Agee, Todd Ayoung (REPOhistory), Alicia Grullón (Percent for Green), Katherine Perk, Lise Soskolne (W.A.G.E.), and Barbara Zucker (A.I.R. Gallery), among others.
Martha Wilson (b. 1947) is a pioneering feminist artist and gallery director, who over the past four decades created innovative photographic and video works that explore her female subjectivity through role-playing, costume transformations, and “invasions” of other people’s personae. She began making these videos and photo/text works in the early 1970s while in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and further developed her performative and video-based practice after moving in 1974 to New York City, embarking on a long career that would see her gain attention across the U.S. for her provocative appearances and works. In 1976, she founded and continues to direct Franklin Furnace, an artist-run space that champions the exploration, promotion and preservation of artists’ books, installation art, video, online and performance art, further challenging institutional norms, the roles artists play within society, and expectations about what constitutes acceptable art mediums.
Wilson is esteemed for both her solo artistic production and her maverick efforts to champion creative forms that are “vulnerable due to institutional neglect, their ephemeral nature, or politically unpopular content.” Described by The New York Times critic Holland Cotter as one of “the half-dozen most important people for art in downtown Manhattan in the 1970s,” Wilson remains what curator Peter Dykhuis calls a “creative presence as an arts administrator and cultural operative.”
Written into and out of art history according to the theories and convictions of the time, Wilson first gained notoriety thanks to the attention of curator Lucy R. Lippard, who placed Wilson’s early efforts within the context of conceptual art and the work of women artists. Commenting on Wilson’s first projects, art historian Jayne Wark wrote in 2001:
“In her conceptually based performance, video and photo-text works, Wilson masqueraded as a man in drag, catalogued various body parts, manipulated her appearance with makeup and explored the effects of ‘camera presence’ in self-representation. Although this work was made in isolation from any feminist community, it has been seen to contribute significantly to what would become feminism’s most enduring preoccupations: the investigation of identity and embodied subjectivity.”
Wilson’s early work is now considered prescient. In addition to being regarded by many as prefiguring some of the ideas proposed in the 1980s by philosopher Judith Butler about gender performativity, many of her photo-text pieces point to territory later mined by Cindy Sherman, among many other contemporary artists.
As a performance artist she founded and collaborated with DISBAND, the all-girl punk conceptual band of women artists who can’t play any instruments, and impersonated political figures such as Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Tipper Gore. In 2008, she had her first solo exhibition in New York at Mitchell Algus Gallery, Martha Wilson: Photo/Text Works, 1971-74. In 2009, Martha Wilson: Staging the Self, an exhibition of her early photo/text work and one project from each of Franklin Furnace’s first 30 years, began international travel under the auspices of Independent Curators International (ICI); this exhibition concluded in New York in Spring 2015 with her personal artwork shown at the Fales Library and Special Collections of New York University and original art and documentation of Franklin Furnace artists at Pratt Manhattan Gallery. In 2011, ICI published the Martha Wilson Sourcebook: 40 Years of Reconsidering Performance, Feminism, Alternative Spaces and in 2012, Specific Object named the Martha Wilson Sourcebook its 2011 Publication of the Year.
Martha Wilson joined P.P.O.W Gallery, New York, and mounted a solo exhibition, I have become my own worst fear, in September 2011. In 2013, Wilson received an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University. In 2015, she received the Audrey Irmas Award for Curatorial Excellence, administered by the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; the College Art Association’s Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award; and mounted her second solo exhibition, entitled Mona/Marcel/Marge, at P.P.O.W Gallery.
March 14, 2017