Does any one think Jerry Saltz would have taken issue with Martha Rosler’s book of war clippings last week in NY Magazine, had her (now closed) show at Mitchell-Innis and Nash taken place in a museum? I know I wouldn’t. After all, many museums have reading rooms situated at the end of major exhibitions so viewers can take the time to bone up on the artist, and the historical context of the work. Commercial galleries simply aren’t designed this way. Moreover, asking a viewer to dedicate two hours of their time reading when they likely have 15 other shows they intend to see that day, won’t be received well. It certainly ruffled a few Saltz feathers.
I hate to keep harping on this point, but like The Times review I discussed last week, Jerry Saltz similarly criticizes Rosler’s new collages as inferior to her previous work without sufficiently substantiating the point.
Four decades later, Rosler turns out not to have changed the look of her own work at all. In “Great Power,” her current skin-deep effort at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Rosler tries to turn back the clock to her glory days, essentially remaking the Vietnam series. Only now she's inserting images of models into pictures of the Iraq War.
In as much as I value the new, the idea that an artist should significantly change the look of their work over time seems like an awfully unfair burden. Nobody criticized Robert Bechtle at this year’s Whitney biennial for painting the same sorts of pictures for 40 years, so I think it’s only fair to pay Rosler the same courtesy. Also, as she explains in the New York Times she’s remaking a lot of her earlier collages to point out how little the war time media coverage has changed. The issue with this of course, is that while the message may not have evolved that much, communication mediums certainly have. For this reason, images such as Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful 2004 (not in this exhibition), which feature viral media models with Bin Laden cell phones seem even more impressive than their predecessors, and the scale of new work like Invasion, 2008, seem particularly appropriate. I’m not convinced the latter is amongst the best of her collages, but it certainly doesn’t deserve the critical venom its received.
Martha Rosler, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful 2004
To be clear however, I don’t wholly disagree with Saltz. In that same paragraph quoted above, he goes on to explain,
Clearly, there are parallels between the two wars, and activist art is valid. But Rosler lapses into simplistic nostalgia and undermines her older work while basically making pretty war porn. The only thing her work says is that fashion designers and women who like to shop caused two wars.
While Saltz reduces the depiction of media spectacle in these works to make a point I don’t think the work supports, I do agree that the use of nostalgic imagery doesn’t benefit her collage(s). To be specific about it, I suspect the piece he refers to above is The Gray Drape, 2008, [pictured above] which pictures a woman from the 1950’s or 60’s using a sheet either as matador would in a bull fight, or (more likely) as a theatrical curtain. Its counter part House Beautiful: Cleaning the Drapes 1967-1972 is surely superior (one of her best in fact) and provides a window to images we know to be incomplete representations of both women and the war. Surely the choice to juxtapose black and white imagery with those of color was no accident. In the new version, while one could argue the 60’s woman in the new version now merely represents an upper liberal middle class consumer group, it seems a bit of a stretch. I still struggle to understand why that particular image was used past the appropriateness of the drape.
One final observation, on the observations of Jerry Saltz. The exhibition turnstile and any critic who expresses support for it, gets it in the quote material below.
To gain entry to “Great Power,” visitors must drop a quarter into a turnstile. The show's press release states that this forces us to make “conscious decisions about how to engage with the work.” This is critique art putting a gun to its own temple. A sign at the door assures us that Rosler will donate all the quarters to antiwar groups. Anyone who thinks any of this is good art, effective activism, or even slightly radical needs to get a grip.
I haven’t decided whether I think that particular piece is as poorly conceived as Saltz does, but his sentiment reminded me of a correspondence I had over email with a friend about the exhibition. Said colleague expressed the thought that the signs of protest themselves were much more powerful than the collages or the act of donating of a quarter. He maybe he right, but it struck me that perhaps the corporation-duping work of contemporary artists like The Yes Men and Eva and Franco Mattes had so significantly changed the discourse of activist art, that we now understand it in only the most literal terms. In other words, we don’t view activist art as successful unless it actually affects change, but are completely oblivious to the double standard maintained when we complain that the form itself is not abstract enough. For artists like Rosler, there’s no winning that argument.