Los Angeles

Erika Rothenberg

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

In their seven separate guises, the paintings and sculptures by Erika Rothenberg shown here moan the same infuriating note. It is the bleak, generalized utterance of futility and blame. The title of the show bluntly says it all: “America, the Perfect Country.” This kind of sarcasm elicits an equally taunting response. When Rothenberg’s not scolding her audience for being sexist, superficially altruistic, narrow-minded, ill-informed, and naive about themselves and the people around them, she’s announcing that the American conscience isn’t as spotless as it’s advertised to be. Is an art audience ready for this shocking information?

In Sex Piece (all works, 1989), three texts hover above pedestals displaying three corresponding plastic objects. Above a small purse, one reads, “74% of American women like money more than sex.” Above a fabricated McDonald’s hamburger and fries are the words, “25% of male teenagers think that a girl owes a boy sex if he pays for dinner.” Two sets of teeth provide the visual stimulus for the observation, “The sexual activity most favored by women is least favored by men and vice versa.” Beside the words “women” and “men,” a footnote at the bottom reads “cunnilingus” and “fellatio.” The tired questions being asked–– what’s wrong with male and female relationships, and do these problems begin at home or up in a tree, and what is big bad America coming to––have no punch because the issues raised are so frequently articulated and discussed in day-to-day life that dragging them out and mentioning them again in such a flat, disenchanted way only conjures up irritation.

Rothenberg’s work aspires to be about people and the world, but it never gets beyond numbers. It reads like an oversimplified, illustrated version of the Harper’s Index. These paintings flaunt their political correctness, but their politics are vague and undemanding. They speak in a monotone and, as a result, deaden the world. The facts Rothenberg presents have little to do with each other except that they all attempt to reprimand the American character. The language of catchy statistics stands in for the truth. The misleading simplicity of numbers has an eerie, condescending edge, pointedly accessible to everyone, and Rothenberg’s attitude seems to be that her audience is so uninformed about contemporary life that elementary statistics and supplemental pictures are all it can absorb. As paintings, the works fail to initiate much of a sensory experience, whether in terms of color, texture, rhythm, or scale; cerebrally, they’re devoid of inflection, detail, and gravity. They’re as coherent and belligerent as a stop sign, but far less dangerous to run through.

Benjamin Weissman