Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Exhibition Review: Martha Wilson at UMFA

Martha Wilson at the UMFA

The Gaze: glass half-full . . .
If you wanted to demonstrate that there is such a thing as a male gaze, different from the way a woman looks at the world, you might assemble pairs of photographs, one in each pair displaying a man’s perspective, one a woman’s. Mount them without labels, let the audience guess which is which. If they guessed correctly, your case would be made. If, however, your pairs showed as much difference as those on display in The Gaze, as arranged by Martha Wilson on the second floor of the UMFA, you might be accused of cooking the books. Surely no actual, random humans would display such blatant differences. One uses his camera, his charm, and the vanity or trust of his subject to take pictures that will allow him later, safely isolated, to stare at her breasts. The other uses her camera discreetly, shooting at a distance or from behind, to study the dynamics of groups of men, women, and children together. This has to be a setup, and a rather clumsy one at that.

But wait: the photographers are identified elsewhere on the wall. Curator Martha Wilson has chosen twenty actual photographs, ten each by the prolific documentary-style photographers Garry Winogrand and Helen Levitt, and let them make her case. After viewing the entire exhibit, surely anyone can see the difference between how this exemplary man and woman see the world, and, because each bears the imprimatur of prestigious artistic and commercial institutions, they must be on some level typical of how everyone sees. From what we see here, men scour the world looking for brief reproductive opportunities, while women seek collaborating communities capable of sustaining the result.

The Gaze: glass half-empty . . .
While Martha Wilson’s selection of twenty photos from thousands produced by these two esteemed craftsmen strongly argues that at least one man and one woman see the world in a certain way, such logically flawed methods cannot prove her point. How can we possibly know her choices are representative even of the work of these two individuals, let alone the other billions of humans on the earth? The only person who could be convinced by this is one who shares her prejudices. Her exhibit implicitly condemns men for having an incomplete view of the world: one lacking an interest in the consequences of their actions. But what about the woman’s view? Isn’t it also lacking a vital part of life? If men were not drawn to women sexually, where would those families Levitt likes to photograph come from?

Human societies are everywhere racist, sexist, homophobic, given to status stratification and the formation of arbitrary in-groups lethally intolerant toward outsiders. Whether these behaviors are biological, and can only be fought individually, or are socialized into being and can be outgrown the same way resists investigation and remains unclear. Perhaps that’s why the topic has become one of the foremost subjects for art in the last half century. If language is a virus, art is a parasite, invading and inhabiting questions that cannot be answered, or even accurately quantified. It may be true, as Auden said of poetry, that art makes nothing happen, yet poetry and art can show us to ourselves. That can be good or bad: the central narrative Martha Wilson came to Utah to share with an enthusiastic feminist and humanist audience on Wednesday, September 18, was about the outmaneuvering and exhaustion of artists by the forces of repression—opposition the artists themselves kindled by their power to instill identity in foes as well as friends. But if her career-long experience as a working artist ran downhill, she clearly wasn’t about to end it in the dumps. Most of the audience stayed till the end of her presentation, when they heard her say she always knew her era wouldn’t last, but that the great thing about being an artist is knowing you can always invent something new to take its place.

Staging the Self, the traveling Martha Wilson retrospective at the UMFA until November 10, covers not only forty years of personal art making, during which she was never far from the leading edge of such burgeoning genres as video and performance art, but in those same years financing, staging, and curating uncounted contemporary works by her peers and collaborators through Franklin Furnace, which she founded in 1976. The exhibit, though arbitrarily cut off at thirty projects, is too large to take in all at once; by means of photos, video clips, posters, cards, clippings, charts, diagrams, and other artifacts, Staging the Self probably encompasses more artists than any previous group show at the museum. Indeed, one of Wilson’s more surprising revelations was that the drying up of National Endowment for the Arts money under relentless pressure from self-styled moral activists has coincided with increasing funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, not for original works but for the labor of archiving the history of half a century’s activism, both pro- and anti-art. Given the propensity of the political right in America for lying not just about its intentions and motives, but its actions, the final victory in the struggle for human rights and equality could take the shape of its complete and accurate history.

How much that history was made by art is another question. Assessments of social progress tend to reflect the experience of the assessor more than available facts—or, as British novelist Sam Byers has it, ‘We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.’ Before assessing how much racial progress in this country owes to the powerful performances of William Pope.L, we’d first have to agree that there had been any racial progress. Pope.L, whose work at Franklin Furnace in 1991 wasn’t essentially different from that presented at the final Ephraim exhibition of the Central Utah Art Center last year, might argue that if little was different, it only shows how little has changed. In other areas, progress is undeniable, and so, too, the contribution of art. Strong majority acceptance of gay marriage among young Americans is surely due in large part to the issue’s exposure in movies and television, popular media that have responded to artist’s books and films, videos, and provocative acts of civil disobedience by activist artists.

A century ago, James Joyce, writing in A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, restated for a modern audience the classical aesthetic principle that only an inferior work of art strives to induce action by the viewer. Most visual art through the ages also observed this rule: Cubism, Abstract-Expressionism, even Dada and Pop strove to induce often-powerful feelings in their audiences, but did not encourage deeds. Only art artificially injected with political propaganda—art officially sanctioned by Fascist and Communist governments in particular—deliberately set forth behavioral goals. Just recently, the reputation of Jackson Pollock, one of America’s most respected artists, was damaged by the revelation that the CIA had clandestinely promoted his work as part of the Cold War. So at the very least, the avowed activism presented in Staging the Self marks a genuine departure, if not a complete reversal, of attitudes toward art that can be traced all the way back to the invention of aesthetic reasoning by the Greeks. So the disorientation many readers of 15 Bytes may feel in these galleries—the sense that art has been hijacked for non-art purposes, even if the theft is well done—is more than just a predictable reaction against artistic progress.

Then there is the restless feeling some will encounter at the archival nature of this show. Some of the works on view, notably the videos and photography, are presented in their complete and original forms, and are, frankly, wonderful. Real women mocking ‘ladies’—first, second, or whatever—gives rise to joy. But most of what Franklin Furnace promoted can be seen only in incomplete form, if at all. The academics who discussed her work with Wilson on the 18th, who dwelled at length on Performance, did so not just because that mode of art making played so large a part in her activities. They also struggled to measure an inherently ephemeral art form. Performance differs from theater in its rejection of willing disbelief; we know what we see in the theater is not real, but a performance is supposed to be actually happening here and now. So can it be saved, or even repeated? Those who raised these questions failed to come up with answers.

Marcel Duchamp, who created the theoretical scaffolding on which performance art stands, also wrote that the lifespan of a work of art is similar to a human lifespan, but that when artworks die, they become antiques suitable for display in museums. If he meant that as well of the arts he helped create, then in Staging The Self we may be witnessing their passing.

Martha Wilson: Staging the Self is a traveling exhibition organized and circulated by Independent Curators International (ICI), New York. Guest curator for the exhibition is Peter Dykhuis. It is at the Utah Musuem of Fine Arts through November 10.

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