Millie Wilson: The Museum of Lesbian Dreams 

Krannert Art Museum (KAM) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
August 29, 2024 – March 1, 2025

Curated by David Evans Frantz and organized for KAM by Amy L. Powell

KAM is enthusiastic to organize the first retrospective exhibition and publication showcasing three decades of Millie Wilson’s work (United States, b. 1948). An influential, yet underrecognized, artist and pedagogue who taught generations of artists at the California Institute of the Arts (following a brief stint teaching at the University of Illinois School of Art & Design), Wilson has deftly examined feminism, queerness, and the historical erasure of such positions from institutions of art.

Uniting major loans from museums, private collections, and the artist, the project contextualizes Wilson’s substantial work, influential pedagogy, and legacy. Alongside her peers such as Lutz Bacher, Nayland Blake, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Lorna Simpson, Wilson joined 1980s postmodernism with the personally and politically charged conceptualism of the 1990s. Her work reflects a particularly unruly conception of queerness that emerged in California during these decades. For example, Wilson’s 1989 installation at LACE titled Fauve Semblant: Peter (A Young English Girl) purported to rediscover a lesbian artist named Peter, who took her name from Romaine Brooks’s 1923–24 portrait of the artist Gluck. Wilson’s faux-retrospective highlighted objects attesting to Peter’s fictionalized life and work: a photograph (taken by Catherine Opie) of Wilson dressed dapperly as Peter; life-sized images of Peter’s smoking jacket, shoes, cane, bow tie, and eyeglasses; and a singular “surviving” painting. Wilson’s installation anticipates many artistic projects utilizing speculation and fabulation to examine queer and trans history, including Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye’s The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1993–96), Ulrike Müller’s Herstory Inventory (2009–12), and Chris E. Vargas’s Museum of Trans Hirstory & Art (MOTHA; 2013–present).  

In the 1990s, Wilson began mounting her works that appropriated museum practices and authority under an expansive project titled “The Museum of Lesbian Dreams,” an assertion of queer world-making as well as a mockery of the Freudian obsession with the unconscious and midcentury sexology research. Duchampian trickery and surrealist tributes abound in Wilson’s invented collection. Trophy (1990) is a bronze chalice lined with rabbit fur that features a diagram from a 1948 study of homosexuality etched into the base. The illustration charts the pathologies of a distinct individual, “Nora M.,” who refused to disavow her sexuality or agency; the work is thus a tribute to Nora’s resilience expressed through the aesthetic legacy of surrealist Meret Oppenheim. Held within a finely crafted vitrine, Trophy also reflects Wilson’s appropriation of museum display techniques. The two bronze plates that comprise another work, Trousers (for Tony) (1992), memorializes the losses of the AIDS crisis, and specifically the artist Tony Greene (1955–1990), who was Wilson’s student and close friend.

Wilson produced fantastical wig sculptures throughout the 1990s—including a monumental, abstract embodiment of accused serial killer and tabloid sensation Aileen Wuornos, who became the focus of numerous other works. More recently, Wilson has turned her investigations to an archive of midcentury vernacular photographs she culled from eBay and thrift stores, enlarged and presented as lightboxes.

This thematic exhibition will emphasize Wilson’s consistent appropriation of museum display practices and institutional authority, her art historical references to dada and surrealism, her sharp attention to gendered portrayals of sexual deviance in early twentieth-century psychoanalysis and sexology, and her longstanding interest in bodies as unruly and contested sites. Ephemera will demonstrate how Wilson’s work enfolds LGBTQ+ cultures, art histories, and activism in the United States, along with a section on her early work and process.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a full-color comprehensive publication with newly commissioned scholarly essays and extensive photographic documentation of Wilson’s work.

Find more information about this exhibition here.

Major support for Millie Wilson: The Museum of Lesbian Dreams is provided by The Henry Luce Foundation, The Terra Foundation for American Art, and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Additional support comes from the Michael Asher Foundation, the Eileen Harris Norton Foundation, the Richard M. and Rosann Gelvin Noel Krannert Art Museum Fund, the KAM Exhibition Fund, the Art and Design Visitors Series, and the Francis P. Rohlen Fund. Supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.

Millie Wilson, Portrait as Peter for Fauve Semblant: Peter (A Young English Girl), 1989. Photo by Catherine Opie. Courtesy of the artist