Feminism Meets the Absurd

December 2, 2015

 

Martha Wilson is an American feminist and an accomplished performance artist. Throughout her career, she has developed a number of photographic and video works that explore her individual femininity through such performances as role-playing. Much of feminist thinking and activism has stemmed from the question of what women want. More specifically, what our society wants women to want. Wilson has been investigating this topic throughout her years as an artist. In her exhibition Mona/Marcel/Marge Wilson examines several aspects of feminist issues. She explores how women are objectified and expected to dress and look a certain way, and how this leads to women expecting themselves to appear according to what society demands. The biggest subject in Wilsons work is a woman’s “beauty” and how it is determined. She also focuses heavily on the aging process, and how a woman really looks as she ages.

 

Wilson was born into a Quaker family in Philadelphia, and went on to earn an undergraduate degree at a small college in Ohio, and then a master’s degree in English Literature from a university in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she remained to teach and continue her art career. In the early 1970’s “second-wave” feminism and the revolution on sexuality were in full swing. At this early stage in her career, Wilson’s exemplary artwork was called “A Portfolio of Models”, which consisted of 6 black-and-white photos of herself. For each picture she dressed up in a different role that was common to women at the time, she played: a goddess, a housewife, a working girl, a professional, an earth mother, and a lesbian. At that time, those were several of the roles women played in society, and Wilson exemplifies this.

 

In 2014 Wilson created a piece called “New Wrinkles on the Subject”, as shown above. For this piece, Wilson applied makeup in order to exaggerate the natural lines that already graced her face. This is a clear violation of the “beauty code” that expects older women to hide signs of aging. She used makeup, the very thing that is produced and consumed to conceal every blemish, pore, and wrinkle, in order to accentuate and highlight those things that would be considered flaws. Wilson and Michael Katchen (the man she was collaborating with at the time) decided her facial expression should be kept neutral, so that her expression of emotion would not affect the reactions of her audience. They wanted the viewers to bring their own thoughts and emotions forward, and not be influenced by an expression of emotion. In her picture, the harsh lighting illuminates every exaggerated “flaw”, and with nothing else but a black background your eye is drawn to the contrast with the black lines on Wilsons face. Wilson’s art goes against every expectation that society has of what beauty should look like, and she redefines it for her audience.

 

Another work of similar meaning is “Bear in Mind/Bare in Hind”, in which Wilsons face is made up to look like a cute panda bear, while the rest of her body is covered in simply a layer of white body paint. The work shows a picture of her panda face next to that of her white buttocks. Wilson did not want any kind of retouching of the photos to alter the way she looked, she kept them 100% natural which adds a lot of dignity to her work. The way in which Wilson approaches the subject of the aging body, exemplifies to the audience the large role that aging plays in the beauty business and in fueling discrimination and judgment. As a society, we have been trained to see aging as a bad thing, something that needs to be covered up and hidden. As a woman, society expects you to die your hair when it starts to turn grey, to spend hundreds of dollars on creams and washes to try and demolish wrinkles, and to use makeup to cover up anything that cant be erased. We don see aging for what is really is, and how beautiful it can be. Every wrinkle around the mouth and eyes is a memory of a good laugh with someone you love. Things like that should not be considered unsightly and need to be covered up, they should be revered and beautiful. This is the major point that Wilson is trying to make.

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