Gale Force

Martha Wilson: Staging The Self

at Arcadia University Art Gallery

Through November 4, 2012

By Daniel Gerwin




Chaos Theory explains that the flapping of a butterfly’s wing can be a driving factor in the development of a hurricane weeks later on a distant continent.


In 2004, two young artists in New York engineered the Magicbike, an artwork designed as a voice of protest against the Republican National Convention about to take place in their city.  Yuri Gitman built the bicycle: its magic power was to create a free wireless hotspot wherever it went.  Gitman’s friend Josh Kinberg added a bike-mounted spray-chalk printer designed to write on the pavement.  Together they created a bicycle with the ability to instantly print text-messages from all over the world as they were received through Kinberg’s website Bikes Against Bush.  Once printed, a chalk-message would last up to five days.


Two days before the convention, as Kinberg demonstrated the device for Ron Reagan of MSNBC, the police arrested him.  He was released after 24 hours, but the bike had been confiscated and it took six months of court procedures to get the charges dropped.  The bicycle was never returned, its disappearance becoming a small but enduring testament to that year’s sweeping effort by the New York City Police Department to limit protest during the convention. Funding for Magicbike had come from Franklin Furnace, a non-profit created and directed by the artist Martha Wilson.


Martha Wilson: Staging The Self at Arcadia University Art Gallery is a close look at Wilson’s career in the center of the culture wars that after forty years show no signs of abating.  Born in Newtown, Pennsylvania, Wilson began her artistic career while a graduate student in English at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where she worked in video, photo, and text to aggressively challenge prevailing notions of gender, age, and sexuality.  She moved to New York City in 1974 and further developed her thinking.  In Wilson’s video Deformation (1974), she stares into the camera while applying makeup to accentuate what she believes to be her worst features, aging herself in the process.  This video, along with Wilson’s other work at the time, anticipates an important dimension of Cindy Sherman’s career.


Wilson’s ambitions extended beyond her own artwork, and in 1976 she founded Franklin Furnace in Tribeca to present installation and performance art, forms that were being marginalized by mainstream institutions.  Franklin Furnace also supported the creation and promotion of artist’s books, ultimately developing the United States’ largest collection of such books produced internationally since 1960.  Despite the wide reach and many facets of Wilson’s career, the exhibition at Arcadia fluidly documents an enormous amount of her history in its compact gallery.  Beginning with a strong sampling of her art from the 1970’s, the exhibit proceeds to a selection of videos and performances she made over the following two decades. The second half of the show is devoted to Franklin Furnace, including a mini-library of artist books available to read, and a look at videos and other documentation of thirty projects representing thirty years of artworks supported by Franklin Furnace.


The exhibition reveals a career both extensive and courageous.  Under Wilson’s direction, Franklin Furnace repeatedly found itself in the cross-hairs of the religious right, Congress, and various government agencies including the Internal Revenue Service and the General Accounting Office because of such shows as Karen Finley’s A Woman’s Life Isn’t Worth Much (1990), and Nicole Eisenman’s The Lesbian Museum, 10,000 Years of Penis Envy (1992), the latter consisting of a stupendous array of dildos and other sex toys.  This was shock art and identity politics long before these terms referred to just another art market niche.  The exhibition history of Franklin Furnace is a who’s who of significant contemporary artists, including (to name just a few) William Pope.L, Sophie Calle, Jenny Holzer, Willie Cole, Vito Acconci, Ana Mendieta, and Shirin Neshat, who had her first U.S. solo exhibition there in 1993.


Kinberg’s arrest is documented on video, and as the police lead him away in handcuffs, Gitman declares off-camera, “The world is going to see this!” But of course nothing could be farther from the truth: the world has not seen Kinberg’s arrest, and almost nobody outside a few circles of artists and radical protesters is likely to know of this event.  Art that overtly critiques or attacks some aspect of the sociopolitical structure inevitably raises questions of impact. To what extent should such art be judged by the degree to which it goes beyond preaching to the choir?  This is a thorny and perhaps unanswerable question, but impact is clearly on Wilson’s mind. Wilson appears uninterested in the artworld pieties through which we experience a supposedly disturbing exhibit whose actual function is to leave us feeling good about our wonderfully open minds.


In 1997, Franklin Furnace sold the loft it inhabited, effectively ending its life as a physical exhibition venue.  In the same year it launched in an effort to reach a global audience, and by 2004 it was receiving three million hits per year.  Wilson is now working to create searchable, online access to the trove of documented performances, installations and exhibits that Franklin Furnace has produced over the decades.  To accomplish this task the organization is collaborating with ARTStor and has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Wilson’s commitment to art’s digital life reflects the ferocity of her desire to change the way art is encountered. By offering truly populist access, she seeks to vault over the power structures currently controlling the exhibition of art. In her talk on the night of the exhibition opening, Wilson envisioned an art version of Pandora, through which one could use a personal computer to experience a varied selection of artworks with a self-selected theme. Her straightforward pragmatism is unusual in art and has made Wilson a force to be reckoned with in her 65th year as much as in her youth.


Tuesday, October 30, 6:30 PM: Materializing “Six Years”: Lucy Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art, lecture by Catherine Morris at Stiteler Auditorium, Murphy Hall. 


Daniel Gerwin is a painter living in Philadelphia.  His work may currently be seen in the group show Visions and Vignettes at Artworks in Trenton, NJ, and in Falling Off, a two-person show with Jennifer Williams beginning October 5th at the University City Arts League in West Philadelphia.