The Other Martha …

Martha Rosler, as opposed to Martha Stewart. The link is the home. For one Martha, the home — and now perhaps the jailhouse — is the theater of sales; for the other Martha, the home itself is a sign in the battleground of signs. A new survey of Rosler’s telling photomontages at Gorney Bravin + Lee (534 West 26th St., to Jan. 8) presents generous samples of two of her classic sequences: one called “Beauty Knows No Pain or Body Beautiful” (1965-04) and the other “Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful” (1967-72), plus more recent works that, with some exceptions, are updates of “Bringing the War Home.”

Sad indeed that BWH needs to be updated, cries out to be updated. A model prancing with a cell phone (shown in multiples of herself) is in a way an update of “Beauty Knows No Pain.” But in spite of the still-thriving use of the objectification of women’s bodies as sales tools (to both men and women), given the Iraqi quagmire, the former is more urgent. When both subjects come together, the effect is explosive, if you will excuse the expression.

Not surprisingly, given her thematic critique of capitalism, Rosler is one of those artists who has tried to resist packaging. She has perpetrated mail-art, performances, video, public art, and even garage-sale art, and most of these explore the notion of the politics of everyday life. For her, the domestic is political. But as her New Museum retrospective in 2000 seemed to demonstrate, there has been no Rosler handle beyond a certain righteousness; she at least (to give her credit) has never been self-righteous, the dangerous sin of the politically committed.

A text produced at the New Museum at the time of the retrospective pointed out graduate school (U.C. San Diego, La Jolla) influences: teachers Herbert Marcuse and Fredric Jameson. And then there was Jean-Luc Godard, who visited when he was in his most political and least communicative phase. No mention is made of artist mentor Eleanor Antin (already at the time engaged in mail art, pseudo-documentary photo art and performances). Working with a group of artists, Rosler developed “a working style that emphasized collaboration over individualism and transformation over consistency.”

Where are those collaborations now?

Furthermore, Rosler “challenged the long-held romantic doctrine that artists should maintain a consistent style within a primary medium so that their work successfully reflects their identity, making it identifiable as their own and no one else’s.”

Did the author of the artwork really die?

Less importantly, it might be that Rosler’s commitment to collaboration, to anonymous or at least unbranded art, and all of her political work, allowed her to produce the photomontages I now celebrate. Or did she produce them in spite of these ideas? I vote for the former.

If art is a method of communication, then galleries and museums are the major vehicles of that communication. Image-identity or branding is absolutely required by the systems themselves. Mass-media is another vehicle for art, but the way to enter mass-media is usually through the galleries and museums. They arrange the billboards and the fashion shoots.

I would never say that the function of a museum retrospective is to package an artist, but certainly coherence of some sort is a requirement, no matter how an artist may want to resist. The vehicle determines not only the route, but the goal.

Ironically, what the current gallery exhibition of Rosler’s work proves is that the photomontages are her best efforts and could easily serve as signature pieces. They are firmly rooted in art history; they use the language of photomontage with new effectiveness, toward new ends. We think, of course, of photomontage works by the Germans of the 1920s (John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch) and Herbert Bayer’s commercial and noncommercial but basically apolitical illustrations. But we are also in Pop territory, for we cannot avoid Richard Hamilton’s iconic 1956 photomontage Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing. There’s that magazine living room, but invaded by a muscle-builder rather than a soldier. The consumerism is the same. We also recall the Situationists in France who, as part of their attack on the “spectacle” of media-capitalism, altered comic strips and advertisements.

Comparisons Are Obvious

Can we compare Rosler’s two bodies of work? Yes, indeed. In “Beauty Knows No Pain,” bare breasts and crotches collaged on to sleek fashion-magazine models certainly make a point. Oddly enough, that point now seems historical. Not only has the air-brushed view of the sexual body continued, it has expanded to include men’s bodies as well. Think Calvin Klein. Or the air-brushed, photo-shoot, pumped-up hairless torsos on the covers of men’s “health” magazines. Sex sells, but it has to be fantasy sex.

Yes, then (c. 1965-90?) as now, women are more vulnerable to this kind of exploitation of their bodies and libidos. I include the latter because many feminists ignore that the fantasy female sexuality in advertising is to sell things to women, not, as was once the case, just automobiles to men. Women dress and “cosmetize” for other women as much as for men, maybe more so. We already know that men work out to impress other men.

The series called “Bringing the War Home” works better. The stage, the closed set or sound stage is the shelter-magazine home: perfect, up-to-date, immaculate, as can be created only by photography. Not the home as love-nest or womb, but the home as design tomb.

Photography, because it is not particularly good at capturing the fingerprints, dust, odors, pollen, bacteria, frayed threads and animal hairs of ordinary domestic reality, has created the impossibly impeccable environment that is the housekeeper’s burden. With the aid of the proper products and cleaning appliances, this environment can be yours. Must be yours!

A friend says he learned all he needed to know about media, particularly television, when as a tike he got to sit on Uncle Bob’s lap live on the Howdy Doody show. The sets were in reality so grubby, the people so grouchy. I had a similar anti-epiphany when as a tike I saw the Today Show live through a plate-glass window in Rockefeller Center: the set, which looked so solid on the TV screen, in real life looked like, and possibly was, cardboard.

Having one’s house photographed for the New York Times is another confirmation of photography as evil. Even photographed by a Long Island crime-scene photographer, our ’50s living room with its see-through fireplace looked impossibly glamorous, spiffy, just crying out for Kim Novak.

Another time, strapped for cash, we rented out our ranch-house for a magazine shoot and were surprised to learn (as proved by the snapshots left behind) that they had replaced all of our Eames furnishings with junk from hell and added huge bouquets of flowers, hanging plants, and weird throw rugs to fill-in the picture. The check did not bounce, but the photos never ran. Our souvenir was of a trial Polaroid of an out-of-context model camping it up in Cynthia Rowley clothes with an Electrolux vacuum cleaner, possibly bought that afternoon.

Now that I have established the scene, only picture windows are required. Rosler, through the photomontage trick, gives us views of the Vietnam War and now Iraq. They could be photomurals or outsize photo-realist paintings situated in these art director created perfect homes, but we know these are meant to show horrors happening in our own backyard or what stands in for same. Even worse, soldiers and victims (and in once case a certain world-famous, leash-wielding party girl in army clothes) invade the fictive space that through media has become our space, the kitchens and living rooms that we occupy in our heads.

Rosler’s media manipulation aims to be homeopathic. A little bit of the same poison that is making you sick (image manipulation) may cure you of the disease.

Marcuse and perhaps the entire Frankfurt School (to be disrespectful, sometimes called the Frankfurter School) did not realize that people are not all that easily fooled. We pick and choose. We make new worlds out of the media worlds. We don’t have to be puritan to be political.

Titles and Sermons

Speaking of image-altering, Gilbert & George, old Brit favorites since their “Living Sculpture” days, are now using digital imaging. A two-gallery extravaganza called “Perversive Pictures” is at Sonnabend (536 W. 22nd St.) and Lehmann Maupin (540 W. 26th St.) through December 18.

Gilbert & George, the world’s most successful collaborators, have come a long way from when, as Living Sculptures, they inaugurated the original Sonnebend Gallery downtown in then newly developing SoHo art district. Covered in gold, the lads did a little dance on a tiny platform to the strains of an awful Victrola rendition of a Victorian ditty called Underneath the Arches.

What they look like, which is consciously square, was always at the center of their art, even when they moved to slick photo blowup grids of themselves. Now they have aged. They may have gotten out from underneath the arches, but have never escaped the arch. Here, through the magic of Photo-Shop or some such program, they butterfly and Rorschach themselves on similarly treated fields of graffiti or slogans, some of them offensive.

Here’s a found poem made up of some of the titles of their new digital blow-ups:


Or you might prefer some slogans from the artworks themselves:





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