Elizabeth Amador ‘16 Contributing Writer
Martha Wilson, a beloved, eccentric and unrepentant feminist artist and gallery director, visited Smith on Sept. 30 to speak about her work in the latest exhibit, “Women’s Work: Feminist Art From the Collection” at the Smith College Museum of Art. Martha Wilson is best known as one of the pioneering American feminist performing artists since the 1970s, the founder of the Franklin Furnace art organization and for her own thought-provoking video and photography pieces.
Wilson’s talk transported the audience back in time to the lives of women and female artists during the Second Wave Feminist movement. In retaliation against the idea that the “personal is political,” feminist artists like Wilson use their own bodies as platforms and mediums of storytelling to escape constricting gender roles.
During her talk, Wilson challenged the audience to remember the cold reality that avant-garde artists — female artists especially — were the targets of the culture wars for decades and continue to be victims of underrepresentation and discrimination. She also spoke of the many evocative artists who premiered in New York with Franklin Furnace and went on to become world-renowned despite their struggles with public and government backlash. Such artists include Karen Finley, Willie Cole, Patty Chang, Jenny Holzer and Krzysztof Wodiczko.
In 1976, the founding of the art organization Franklin Furnace was borne from the desperate need for an open virtual and performance space for avant-garde artists. In the early years of Franklin Furnace’s development, the organization was focused on propelling and preserving the work neglected by mainstream institutions or politically unpopular art in the form of artists’ books, temporary installation art and performance art.
Wilson’s own work reflects such opposition to the status quo with her collaboration and founding of DISBAND, an all-female vocal punk band that cannot play instruments, her amusing satirical impersonations of Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan and Tipper Gore and her investigation into self-identity in “A Portfolio of Models” and “I have become my own worst fear/Deformation.” Smith is privileged to host these pieces in the Women’s Work exhibit, as these pieces are brutally honest, visceral challenges to the definitions of beauty, aging and self-identity.
As you walk through the gallery, Wilson’s video monologue “Deformation” blends seamlessly into the theme of the exhibit; as your eyes are drawn towards highlighter-colored lithographs and messages of the Guerilla Girls, your ears resonate with Martha’s self-deprecating descriptions of her face and makeup. Defiance against ideas of obscenity and beauty of the female body also permeates “Red Flag” and “Peeling Back” by Judy Chicago, which artistically present female genitalia and menstruation, and Carolee Schneemann’s “Eye Body series,” which hearkens back to the hypocrisy of the art world as criticized by the Guerilla Girls.