Consciousness Raising: Martha Rosler at the Jewish Museum
Martha Rosler: Irrespective at the Jewish Museum
November 2, 2018 to March 3, 2019
1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street
New York City, jewishmuseum.org
Martha Rosler consistently challenges power structures, particularly in relationship to class and gender. To paraphrase Michel Foucault, power passes thorough the powerful as well as through the powerless. Her long overdue New York City mid-career retrospective embraced the breadth of her oeuvre with works that ranged from sculpture, installation, video and photography. It should be said, however, that while opening wall text states that the show is in close chronological order, the visitor’s path is not clearly defined, nor is chronology followed.
One gallery, for instance, dedicated to text related pieces contains works from 2006 to the present. “Reading Hannah Arendt” (2006) is an installation consisting of clear plastic ceiling-to-floor panels with large black text excerpts from Arendt’s “Origins of Totalitarianism” set up as a maze-like structure. Opposite is a wall of large-scale photographs of bookshelf groupings with titles such as “Debt,” “The “Anatomy of Fascism” and “What Really Happened in the 1960s.” These book images range from 2008 – 2018 and serve as an archive of Rosler’s artistic and pedagogic research. The photographs pay homage to the book form, employing a constructed documentary strategy. The labyrinth piece is difficult to navigate or make sense of in a gallery setting. The book photographs do inspire one to take notes for future reading, underscoring the theoretical and historical foundation of Rosler’s artistic practice.
It is evident that Rosler occupies a feminist position in many of her works. Vital Statistics Simply Obtained (1975), for example, a video depicting the artist’s body being measured in a regimented manner, equates raw statistical data to an idealized female body type. This objectification highlights unequal power relationships within gender politics. However, to label Rosler solely as a feminist artist delimits her prescient and powerful contributions to both art history and theoretical discourse. The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974), for example, challenges the photographic gaze of the social documentary genre and the asserts the force of Conceptual Art strategies.
The groundbreaking work of well-meaning historical figures such as Jacob Riis, Louis Hine and Dorothea Lange, at times, debase the lower-class subjects through the photographic gaze. Rosler critiques the photographer’s power position by substituting cliché images of skid row alcoholics with images where there is a deliberate absence of human subjects, deliberately frustrating viewer expectations. The unpeopled spaces are paired with derogatory descriptive terms of that malign the individuals and their inebriated state with words in two different font styles. Pejorative terms such as “drunk, derelict, bum” questions the objective stance of the social documentary project that at once brings attention to social ills while concurrently objectifying subjects that lack social agency. In an ironic historical twist, the current gentrified Bowery renders the piece an historic document much like Atget’s photographs of Old Paris. This theme reoccurs in Rosler’s recent project that records the transformation of her Brooklyn neighborhood from a working-class community to a bourgeois enclave.
Greenpoint Project (2011), the city exemplifies the role of gentrification in the rise in income inequality. She photographs and interviews numerous local merchants creating photographic portraits that are juxtaposed with quotes from the interviewees. As an inverse to the word text of The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems the subjects here speak for themselves. One notable tension within the artwork is the artist Carlos Valencia, a barista at Five Leaves restaurant. His words reveal a conflicted role as he states that he is a “Friend of the Owner, not an Owner.”
Rosler’s landmark early video work, Semiotics of the Kitchen, (1975), inadequately displayed on a small television monitor in the corner of a gallery, parodies TV cooking shows and essentialist definitions of women’s domestic roles. Rosler wryly invokes semiotic theory to explode the limitations of such social constructs. In this black and white video, the artist boldly addresses the camera reciting the alphabet, pairing each letter with a corresponding kitchen implement.
The elegiac series, Bringing the War Home (1967-72) utilizes home decor magazine editorials combined with Vietnam War news images in a photomontage format. Rosler reproduces the phenomenon of the horrors of this unpopular war entering American homes through the mass media in using those same print materials in a remarkable example of both image appropriation and recontextualization. Notable is the photograph of Pat Nixon within an ornate interior, dressed in a ballgown, where in a picture frame on the wall of the White House drawing room Rosler inserts the image of a war victim.
Overall, this exhibition rightfully situates Rosler as a standout visionary figure who perpetually interrogates the social and political dynamics of contemporary culture. She often highlights the manner in which the mass media manipulates and reinforces social norms by utilizing the same source material to bear witness to social and political inequality. In an age of the #metoo movement, Time’s Up and gross economic inequality with the rise of the 1% “Martha Rosler: Irrespective” speaks volumes to the perils of our current state of affairs. Rosler forcefully challenges viewers to adopt an activist consciousness.