New York

Ted Rosenthal

Salvatore Ala Gallery

There are quite a lot of graffiti artists around, many of whom never wrote graffiti, but there aren’t many graffiti sculptors; Ted Rosenthal may be the only one. (Actually there must be two—someone lashed some very nice garbage-bag men to a Cyclone fence down my street once.) The Dominican social club across the street from where I live was bombed once, but the only time I’ve ever seen the bomb squad around here was when they removed a bombish-looking Rosenthal sculpture from the wall next to the large billboard at Broadway and Houston Street. Rosenthal also mounted some large pink Sleet penises on lampposts around town which were favorably reviewed in The Village Voice, which quoted a “local feminist”: “Notice that its pointed inward, attached by its tip, not its base . . . It’s not aggressive in that position. lt’s like satisfied—it’s happily parked.”

In this exhibition Rosenthal showed larger works—a chandelier, a fountain, and what can only be described as sculptures. In materials and in spirit Rosenthal’s works are both heavy and light: dense steel here, plastic hose there; monstrosity here, giggles there. Rosenthal makes light of what’s heavy. Most of his creatures are monsters— surrealistic monsters of the id combined with a bit of heraldry and a lot of cartoon sensibility.

Your Mother, 1984, combines expressionist dislocation with something very reminiscent of Road Runner-cartoon star Wile E. Coyote. Here is a figure that has been steamrollered and comes up smiling. Mother rests on two stockinged legs and two sandaled feet, but she has six hands, and her trunk and head are on sideways. She is made of corrugated steel plate, the nonskid kind used for floorboards in bulldozers and oil rigs. Her steel hair is flames or an aura. Each of her six hands is stigmatized with a large steel rivet.The piece is about the suffering that only mothers suffer, and about the ritual games children of all ages play, beginning with the words “your mother.”

Rosenthal also deals with fathers in These Were My Dad’s Conference Chairs, 1985, a large piece requiring a corporate-sized home. Three modern, formerly plush swivel chairs are attached like a train and mounted at the top of an inclined ramp. Armatures hold masks where a sitter’s head would go, as in salon hair dryers. One looks like a combination gladiator’s helmet, Italian priest’s hat, and death’s-head, with refrigeration coil horns. Another suggests a welder and a sea anemone. The chairs sit not on their original casters but on heavy industry wheels that are too big and strong for them. Handcuffs, Sterno cans, and heavy levers are attached. If this train of chairs were released from its moorings it would roll down the ramp into a four-sided trap of steel fence on wheels, which could be an instrument of torture or an industrial hatter’s device. Again, it’s funny and charming but the gravity never goes away. Like the moored chairs, it has potential energy.

Rosenthal’s pieces are funny and targeted but they are also beautiful. The florid twists of foliage, fish, penises, and flames in heavy-duty metal are perfect. The paint is bright and cartoony but it’s also wackily almost gorgeous. Apparently Rosenthal loves flowers. I asked the gallery staff if Watering the Lawn, 1985, his fountainlike piece, was functional. Apparently it not only waters grass but uses a Rosenthal-designed nozzle to water the most delicate flowers without roughing up their petals.

Glenn O'Brien