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.