by Lily Dolin
Art is not always easy. Museums are often filled with visitors squinting at artwork, trying and often failing to understand the meaning behind it. Other times, art is difficult to digest. Artwork that forces us to confront tough topics can sometimes be scary. People often seek to prohibit or censor this controversial art, or to silence the artists who make it.
Martha Wilson is no stranger to artistic oppression. She is a feminist photographer, videographer and performance artist who has worked tirelessly over the past four decades to promote the downtown Manhattan art scene and cultivate art that challenges the notion of what is considered acceptable or culturally appropriate. Her talk, “Martha Wilson: Staging the Self (Transformations, Invasions, and Pushing Boundaries),” focused on her artistic career and the obstacles that she and her peers faced in trying to express themselves through art.
Wilson began by showing pictures of her early works. Among them was a particularly powerful piece titled “Breast Forms Permutated.” This work features nine pictures of breasts placed in rows, with each row representing a different “type” of breast. The work can be seen as a commentary on the tendency for society to measure women’s bodies up to each other, as well as a critique on the permeance of the male gaze and over sexualization of the female body. Wilson also completed many important projects such as “A Portfolio of Models,” in which she dressed herself up as the each of the five stereotypically female roles (Housewife, Professional, Working Girl, Earth Mother, Lesbian), in order to stress the ridiculousness of trying to force women into any of these definitions.
After showcasing her early work, Wilson began to talk about the Franklin Furnace, the exhibition space she created to showcase contemporary artists. The installations at the Franklin Furnace were important and powerful, but not always appreciated. Wilson explained how one particular installation, “Carnival Knowledge,” caused a huge uproar amongst conservative groups and ultimately led to the withdrawal of its funding by the National Endowment for the Arts program. The installation featured art and performance pieces by feminists struggling with the question: is feminist porn possible? Pieces such as “Deep Inside Porn Stars,” and “Constant State of Desire” instigated protests and general outrage from the Morality Action Committee,a group influenced the N.E.A. to withdraw funds for the Franklin Furnace. Wilson recalled how difficult it was to create art during a period when so many people and organizations were attempting to prohibit artists from tackling these controversial issues.
Now, the Franklin Furnace is an online exhibit, created to preserve the First Amendment right to free speech that artists had been denied during the 1970s up until the 1990s, in the physical exhibition space. Martha Wilson’s contributions to the counterculture art scene are invaluable and will surely influence artists and feminists alike for generations to come.
Lily Dolin is a Staff Writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org