Erika Rothenberg

Erika Rothenberg’s mordant wit is shameless and almost totally lacking in subtlety. She knows the strategies of modern advertising and mass communal signage by rote, and she employs them in her relentless attack. Refusing to let her mask slip for so much as a moment, Rothenberg offers her audience no respite. Like the fetid procedures of American social discourse she parodies, her approach knows no hesitation or remorse. Rothenberg sees America as a land of importunity—the home of the quick and the deadpan—and she knows that her tactics must be adequate to a human comedy of such tragic breadth as to very nearly surpass understanding.

At the core of Rothenberg’s autopsies lies her recognition that systems of interpersonal communication implicitly telescope personal experience. Any verbalization, any sign, any effort at discourse privileges homogeneity and implies a surrender of privacy and uniqueness. In Greeting, 1991, Rothenberg mimics and derides the banal desperation of the greeting card by designing her own line in gouache, adopting just the right tone for issues such as date rape, CIA assassination, famine, abortion, learning disabilities, plea bargaining, and the fall of Communism. Grinning indignities are Rothenberg’s hallmark; she plays into the din surrounding the impossibility of reconciling the meaning of individual experience with the bulldozing collectivization of mass culture.

In ’Phone Sex, 1991, she plainly identifies the tool forged by humankind for its own enslavement. Six of these phallic appendages dangle over six blank, cutout wooden heads, all of which are raised in tender obeisance. The heads dutifully strain to fellate and suckle this source of meganourishment, this promise of celebrity and audience, this new and hypnotic golden calf.

Difference, 1991, assesses the blurring of gender via the immersion of sexual difference into bathroom iconography. Six pairs of signs, of the type usually placed on public bathroom doors, are set above four toilet-stall doors. They descend from the familiar (Women, Men) to the touchingly unfunny (Cowgirls, Cowboys) to the anatomically direct (Vaginas, Penises) to the anatomically democratic (Assholes, Assholes). The four stall-door hooks support articles that could have either male or female owners (a shoulderbag, a denim jacket, sunglasses, a blazer). The work ultimately constitutes less a scatological commentary than a recognition of the coded nature of sexual identity.

Test, 1991, turns its attention to patterns of psychosis, creating a curiously cool chamber of horrors. The piece opens with a warning emblazoned on a freestanding metal message stand: “If you do not feel any of these things you are not human. If you feel too many of these things you are insane.” On tepid hospital-green walls, Rothenberg installed six plastic cutouts shaped from Rorschach ink blots, on which are typeset sequences of one-line texts drawn from the Hoffer-Osmond diagnostic test for schizophrenia. These aphorisms, running from pensées such as “I am rotten inside,” “I love to see my name in print,” or “I don’t know whether I’m a man or a woman,” to “I sometimes taste sound” and “Buildings often look as if they are crumbling,” reveal Rothenberg’s insatiable appetite for comic horror—for examining the tendrils of corruption that sprout from our hearts of darkness. Her art incessantly, annoyingly, and amusingly tugs at our collective sleeve; it is a rapid-fire onslaught of one-liners that, at their best, sometimes hit home with shattering effect.

James Yood