The receptionist at the Mitchell Algus gallery informed me that before doing performances “for people sitting in chairs,” Martha Wilson’s performances used to focus on one spectator only: her Pentax camera. Wilson’s show at the gallery, her first solo show ever, focuses on exactly this pre-live performance period, when she began to explore gender, identity, expression and perception while studying at the Nove Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. From 1971 to 1974, Wilson created a series of photo/text works that have never been exhibited before this time. Wilson’s show at Mitchell Algus feels like an intimate exposure of archival material, with images always accompanied by text, almost like an ethnographic study of the artist.
Overall, the show is rather small: between the anteroom and the main room, a total of 16 works hang on the walls of the gallery. While small, the exhibition also offers a wide range of Wilson’s work. A large part of the text-photo pieces focuses on Wilson playing different roles. Whether as a lesbian woman who fails to pass in a men’s bathroom (Posturing: Mae Impersonator (Butch), 1973), or as each of the models offered her by society as a woman (A Portfolio of Models, 1974), Wilson’s impersonations are among the first performances that overtly dealt with social expectations of gender and sexuality. Wilson also explores these issues in the studies of her own body/self, such as in I Make Up the Image of My Perfection/I Make Up the Image of My Deformity (1974), where she focuses on her face to explore the extremes of beauty and ugliness. Some of the works, however, deal more generally with the female body, as in Breast Forms Permutated (1972), or with overtly political issues, such as in Chauvinistic Pieces (1971), moving in a different direction from Wilson’s impersonations.
In these solo performances for her Pentax, Wilson gets naked, both metaphorically and literally, using the camera as a tool to break down traditional notions of objectivity and to explore how the self is created in performance. But the exhibition is not made of images alone. In the 16 works on exhibit, Wilson skillfully brings together images and text to complicate the meaning of her performances. The text serves as a commentary on each piece as well as a tool to communicate directly with the audience. As viewers, through the text we are introduced to the artist’s thought process as well as to her personal perspective. By creating a window into the inner processes of Wilson’s creative mind, the text establishes an intimate relationship between the works and the spectator. Simultaneously, the text makes up for the extent to which Wilson exposes her self in some of the images, reminding us that what might appear as vulnerability is, in fact, a very deliberate gesture on the part of the artist (see, for instance, the piece where she plays an older woman trying to look like a younger woman, or the one in which she stages a perfect suicide).
Wilson’s exhibit at the Mitchell Algus offers an unexpected glimpse into the early photographic work of an artist who is mainly known for her live performances. The result is a precious collection of artistic works that show the early experimentation of a woman before she arrived in New York and joined the ranks with other feminist artists. Wilson’s solo reminds us that before Cindy Sherman, and before the great boom of feminist art in the mid and late 1970’s, individual artists were already asking important questions about the politics of gender, sex, sexuality and identity. In light of the present presidential campaign, so enmeshed with identity politics and questions of identity performance, Wilson’s show seems most appropriate, asking us to think again about representation and self-creation in the present social context.
Mitchell Algus Gallery