The Eternal Activist
Martha Rosler, Jewish Museum, NYC
Martha Rosler has been working since the 1960s, and she came up during one of the first major waves of protest art, and today she is busier and more relevant than ever. From gender politics to war to capitalism, Rosler has used various mediums to create artworks that elegantly function as activism and critique. At a new retrospective, entitled Irrespective, at the Jewish Museum in New York, Rosler’s work feels not only deserved, but urgent and necessary.
What is most apparent in this show is that Rosler manages a tricky balance. Activism in art can feel insincere or self-serving, but with Rosler, she uses wit and elegant technique to create a biting and searing appraisal of her target. For example, her most famous body of work is an early series called House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home. The artist used the elegant interiors of the era and spliced them with images of anti-war protests and images of violence from the Vietnam War. This jarring contrast is cold and controlled, and exposes the hypocrisy of affluent Americans and their government. Nearly all of her photomontages and collages seem to sit back calmly and tell the viewer, “I told you so.” In her usual timely fashion, Rosler revived the series when the Middle East was invaded during the Bush administration.
While war-induced violence is one of Rosler’s major concerns, she has committed equal focus to the labor and oppression of women and minorities. An installation entitled A Gourmet Experience from 1974 shows a dining table set tastefully for twelve, but the surrounding space is filled with images and videos that show the distinct oppression and class difference of the laborers who would create such a feast. This reality brings an awkward air to the dining table, which suddenly looks unseemly and foolish. Also in the show is the seminal video work Semiotics of the Kitchen from 1975. In it, Rosler is shown as a sort of cooking show host, but instead of cooking, she simply names various elements found in the kitchen. However, she also replicates their uses, which takes on an air of disturbing violence; she wrenches a can opener or uses a knife to stab the air. Rosler points to the absurdity of the domestic space, but also the role and labor foisted upon women for generations. With her menacing movements and cold demeanor, Rosler seems like she’s ready to turn on you.
Today, Rosler is still producing new work, and she hasn’t lost any of her talent or drive. In 2016, she produced the work Point n Shoot, which shows then candidate Donald Trump. Text is printed on top of this image, which quotes Trump speaking about his popularity, and how he could essentially shoot someone and still be beloved. Behind Trump is a list of names, but they aren’t any random selection of individuals, they are African-Americans shot down or killed by police officers. Tellingly, the museum’s press release notes that the artist had to update the image with new names in 2018.
Through the over fifty years of her career, Martha Rosler has been protesting through her art. She also has been a teacher, a writer, and an activist. She has used her skills to their full capacity to illustrate the abuses of power and systems of oppression we are not aware of or choose to ignore willingly. If one takes anything away from this exhibition, it is that Rosler is not just an example to and influence on artists, but to all people who have the agency to create change.