Artist Martha Wilson discusses art and career at PSU

Almost every Wednesday night in the Shattuck Hall Annex at Portland State, artists gather for the MFA Studio Lecture Series installment hosted by the School of Art + Design. These lectures bring together a variety of artists from multiple disciplines to present their own works of art before a live audience. Last Wednesday, artist Martha Wilson explored her role as a feminist in the world of performance art.

Wilson is a pioneering performance artist focused on feminist subjectivity through the medium of costumes, role-playing and what she called “invasions of other people’s persona.”

“[Performance artists] use the moment as the fabric of their work,” she explained.

Wilson has had a variety of solo exhibitions, including “Martha Wilson: Photo/Text Works, 1971-74” in 2008 at the Algus Greenspon Gallery in New York, “Martha Wilson: Staging the Self” in 2009 at the Independent Curators International and “I have become my own worst fear” in 2011 at the P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York.

Despite her college education in English literature, Wilson’s true career as an artist began when she was hired by the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to teach grammar to art students.

“It was the coolest school in North America,” Wilson said.

The resources there, such as the video equipment and classes, allowed her to transition into her calling as a performance artist.

During the lecture, Wilson displayed her art from this period in her life, which consisted mostly of moving and highly personal photographs. Her work addresses a wide range of subject matter.

“I was really impressed by the breadth of information that she presented,” said Elizabeth Spavento, an independent curator from Portland.

One of Wilson’s first pieces was an experimental composure from 1972 in which she compared her facial expressions when her photo was taken with and then without a mirror in her line of sight. Analyzing the intensity of her own expression, Wilson determined, “My features are more responsive to internal mirrors than to real external mirrors.”

She also expressed her passion for costumes through her many examples of role-playing, through her piece Posturing Drag in 1972.

“I have dressed in drag so the transformation goes from female, into male and back to female,” Wilson said. “Form determines feeling, so if I pose in a role, I can experience a foreign emotion.”

Following her time in Nova Scotia, Wilson moved to New York. In 1976, she founded the Franklin Furnace, an artist-run space that supports performance art of all mediums.

“We were inventing post-modernism,” Wilson said.

In her lecture, Wilson depicted the history of Franklin Furnace, from its reputation as the largest collection of internationally published artist books in the U.S. to its magazine publication about the downtown New York art scene. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Franklin Furnace became a hub for the feminist artists of the time, such as the Feminist Art Workers’ Heaven or Hell.

Franklin Furnace continues to support artists with particularly vulnerable venues, whether due to politically sensitive artwork or the short timespan in which the art exists. Wilson still directs Franklin Furnace after more than 30 years.

“We’re thinking about freedom of expression for artists,” Wilson said. “Art used to be paintings on the wall and sculptures on stands; now it’s a collaboration between artists.”

For more information about Martha Wilson, visit