Old women are expected to behave themselves—to act kindly, to nod quietly, to fill the hours with knitting or caring for African violets. May Wilson would have none of it. From 1966, when she moved to New York at age 61, until her death 20 years later, this wildly bohemian grandmother and surrealist hosted a salon filled mostly with young narcissists, and made a spectacle of herself in art.
Wilson grew up poor, quit school, married, and had the first of two children when she was 20. In the 1940s, she studied painting through correspondence courses while keeping house in a Maryland suburb. Through her son, a writer, she tuned into New York’s underground, exchanging letters with mail artist Ray Johnson, among others. When her husband left her, she started life anew in the Chelsea Hotel.
This show at Gracie Mansion focuses on two types of photocollage, though it also includes her ghoulish assemblages (mummified dolls and the like) and a half-hour film about her. For her series of “Ridiculous Portraits,” she’d tie her mane of gray hair into a signature topknot, don papier-mâché jewelry and a homemade muumuu, and take the subway to Times Square, where she’d mug around in photobooths. Back home, she’d paste her face into magazine ads, girlie pictures, or postcards of famous paintings. Years before Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura pursued similar ideas, Wilson produced images that were lubricious, hilarious, and unnerving.
Who’s that old lady sticking out her tongue while running through tall grass in a polka dot shift? Who’s that winking, geriatric showgirl in pasties, or that 16th-century nun with a goofy grin? Wilson is impassive as Queen Elizabeth II, but smiles broadly as Rembrandt’s gentleman fondles her breast, in work poised somewhere between a crude sexual joke, a memento mori, a biting feminist critique of art history, and a sophisticated send-up of eroticism.