New York

Erika Rothenberg

Erika Rothenberg maintains a political focus of which her paintings’ format and formal devices are a direct emanation. In Rothenberg’s recent exhibition of works from 1986 and ’87, “New! Ideas for a Better World,” the 11 paintings and an installation were all based on the marketing strategies and story-board structure of television commercials. They develop the notion of advertising infused with moral prescriptions—an idea that she first outlined in her 1983 book, Morally Superior Products—and they demonstrate, more successfully than her previous works, how advertising is inextricably linked with the American political agenda.

All of the paintings consist of single or multipanel canvases painted in acrylic (with, in one work, an additional painted wooden piece). Parodying the aggressive look and techniques of television advertising, they supplement a strident imagistic rhetoric with verbal texts that, mimicking the TV voice-over, push the narrative along. These paintings resound with the relentless cheerfulness of commercials that promise health, wealth, and prosperity. The object of this address is the typical American family, with its clean-scrubbed moralism, athleticized bodies, and faith in the goodness and rightness of the American way. Deploying the primitive realist style of cartoon illustration, Rothenberg delineates a cast that consists of the industrious housewife, the wholesome kids, and the prosperous papa, and portrays the seductive simplicity exerted upon them by, for example, “‘Stay-Married’ Tablets” or “‘Be a Better Person’ Nasal Spray” (motto: “YOU CAN CURE YOURSELF OF RACISM!”). In this manner, she evokes both the zingo! presto! promise of the commodity and the public’s investment in the capacity of products to ratify pre-established values. However, her principal targets here are racism and the attitudes of the white phallocracy of Middle American society. Among her most effective images are those in the “Before” and “After” panels for “‘Make the World Perfect’ Miracle Spray” (motto: “JUST SPRAY ON BAD THINGS AND THEY BECOME GOOD!”), through whose use the world is instantly transformed from black to white, from squalid to wholesome, and from indigenous cultures to clones of American values.

Rothenberg’s prime ability is to render situations whose extreme manifestations are fully credible: we recognize these people, and we are all too familiar with this ideology and the genre of objects that would implement it. Advertising’s moral imperative is but another avatar of American imperialism—our nation’s attempt to remake the world in its own image. She isolates a culprit, television, whose global reticulations pump the American ideal at full force, homogenizing the world’s cultural differences. This is the underlying message of all of these works, as suggested by the title of one of them, “A Message of Friendship from the USA,” 1987. But Rothenberg also points to the phallic dimension of all power. Her politics take a specifically feminist turn in an installation in which headless and armless department-store dummies surround a painting that promotes “‘Secret Penis’ Pantyhose,” whose attached pocket provides the upwardly mobile woman with what she inherently lacks. The ad-copy text in the painting—a six-panel storyboard with captions—ends with a simulated TV refrain: “’CAUSE A WOMAN NEEDS TO START AT THE BOTTOM IN ORDER TO GET TO THE TOP!”

Rothenberg’s works are raunchy, rollicking, and deliberately unsubtle; they shun coquettish indirection and “moral delicacies” in order to make their political points. But points they do make, with an exaggerated overload that might shake the laid-back complacency of the normative TV viewer.

Reviwed by Kate Linker.