(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)
Living in Someone Else’s Paradise is Millie Wilson’s splashiest installation so far in her ongoing project, “The Museum of Lesbian Dreams.” Hers is a subversive art, dealing with proliferation, re-appropriation and sly innuendo.
Many postmodernists use these tactics to make art about art, or to produce empty commodities of little critical value. But Wilson skillfully attaches an outlaw tag that re-qualifies the highest and lowest forms of cultural production she can find, dream or re-make. She then funnels these artifacts into a new “museum” context housing the subcultural space of lesbian imagination.
Wilson’s collection of trophies, by now, seems limitless. Each artifact adds voice to the fact that “we” (the usual outsiders of history – the “other”) are everywhere. “Deviant Cyborg, f.,” inspired by Donna Harraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century, is, literally, a tool kit for fashioning the future feminist from the present day. This piece is a particularly shrewd send-up of the other state-of-the-art, perpetual motion machines in her show.
There isn’t a central (read, exclusionary) position to speak from in this kind of museum, because it continuously subverts its own authority as a field of activity, rather than a fixed physical place. Her acquisition practices keep changing too. This season “The Museum” features esoteric high art from the lesbian scenarios it addresses.
Her self-curation also includes some theatrical splash of personal conquests, as border skirmishes between public and private life. She articulates the conditions of being a woman in the art world, at the same time unruly dream genitalia float around in her work. Indeed, The Museum, posits political questions about visibility, pleasure and identity.
In her current installation at New Langton Arts, “paradise” likely refers to the seeds of Modernism, and its relative power dynamic between female muse and male artiste. In other words, it’s someone else’s garden begging for a good weeding and maybe hothouse procedures to encourage new growth. In a high and low-fallutin manner, Wilson tills the proto-Surrealism of Marcel Duchamp for the alluring fields of vanity and macabre seductions of dreamt gender ambiguity lurking there.
Wilson’s re-appropriation of facets of Duchamp’s alter ego, Rrose Selavy, is an impossibly concocted but fruitful program. Duchamp, after all, was a significant appropriationist. Now imagine a current spin, where Cindy Sherman and Sheri Levine (appropriationists par excellence) are rehashed as canonized drag queens appearing as sculptures in Millie’s Museum with a wry and complicitous camp sensibility. Where their primary focus seems to be around identity is a social construction, Wilson shows how merely inverting male or female codes is too simplistic, and, frankly, never enough.
The Surrealists are the best prowl for ambiguous drama because all their formulas are so askew. Wilson’s high-brow bad girl twists of gender coding in these particular spinoffs capture the chill of art market slickness, while exploring unexpected territory in a hall-of-mirrors of role reversals. Her sense of humor helps the audience with the issue that there aren’t straight answers to repositioning oneself in constantly shifting landscapes of power.
Tongue twisters and visual puns wrap around those who speak them in this show. One of the “Trophies,” a chrome sex shop bracelet, sports the inscription, “L.H.O.O.Q.,” a transliteration, which read aloud means “She has a hot ass” – connoting the difference between when Duchamp coined the term, or Millie deploys it now.
“Teacher,” an oak chair, inverts the S-curves Man Ray drew onto a photograph of a woman, visually carving her body into a musical instrument. Here, however, a dildo-like carving protrudes from the wooden seat of authority as a French tickler extraordinaire.
A wacky 1950s kind of “Gidget-goes-to . . .” pulp referencing neon sign counterbalances power play lessons in “Student in Lesbos.”
“Merkins” is the most stunning piece in the exhibition. These five shelved genitalia-inspired wigs are lines up and named, “Gladys, Kathleen, Virginia, Ellen and Patricia.” Wilson lets each oversized fetish sing its own liquid, distinct refrain. These gushing reverse cameos clearly indicate that the artist has a lot more tricks up her sleeve.