Monday, October 06, 2008

On Martha Rosler's "Great Power" at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Chelsea

A response to the Jerry Saltz review in New York Magazine.



Martha Rosler has typically been too pat and jejune in her politics, and in her assumption that it makes for good art, and Jerry Saltz correctly nails the rehash aspects of the current Mitchell-Innes & Nash show. The word "on the street" (in this case West 26th) is that Rosler is breaking no new ground, merely updating and enhancing both the scale and production values of her familiar collaging of images. Once they were taken from the Vietnam battlefield and conflated with magazine clippings from the home front: fashion models, washing machines, living room sofas and credenzas, Playboy nudes. Now they include some "relevant" Iraqi/Afghani footage - burkas and amputees - and benefit from Photoshop. Rosler might have succeeded in "bringing the war home" in 1968, but as Thomas Wolfe said, "You Can't Go Home Again". The epithet "pretty war porn" might be a bit harsh, but it is not that far from the mark.

But unmentioned by Saltz is how the artist's characteristic LCD reductivism can occasionally wind up being an asset. Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975, 6 minutes) is a proto-feminist video in which a deadpan Rosler, channeling Chaplin, goes through a lexicon of appliances and tools, A to Z, demonstrating their uses and abuses. The simple set and static camera manage to trap Rosler mid-screen as she "names her own oppression". It is eerily repressed, confrontational and decidedly loopy, one of her most effective works, probably because it is both specific and personal.



A performance piece might have enlivened the current exhibition. But sadly, the only performance is left to us, the audience, as we are asked to drop a quarter in a turnstile in order to enter the gallery. This "threshold" event might have hoped to evoke a carny-like, populist, big tent atmosphere for this overtly political show, especially in the context of an election year. Personally though, I find the demand just a bit presumptuous. It brings to mind the sideshow trivialization of Steve Powers' Waterboarding Thrill Ride: "Ladies and gents, step right up and get your torture here!"

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