New York

Erika Rothenberg

“You’re a liar, a manipulator, a phoney and an adulterer! Maybe you should run for president!” With a wry eye for the interplay between art and advertising, commerce and culture, Erika Rothenberg turned MoMA’s “Projects” space (conveniently located next to the Museum’s bookstore) into an auxiliary shop, mirroring the public, commercial, and exhibition components of the Museum itself.

Rothenberg’s installation, House of Cards, 1992, made painfully direct sociopolitical and cultural observations by mimicking the format, cadence, and sentimentality of contemporary greeting-cards. As with much of her work, humor provided an entry to the horrors of violence and absurdities of injustice; with our laughter came shock and rage. Rather than simply reproducing the ubiquitous greeting-card counters in pharmacies, supermarkets, and stationary stores, Rothenberg adapted their familiar methods of presentation and categorization to represent the space between silence and sensationalism. Her blunt, deliberately ingenuous productions highlighted the bleak dynamic of the personal and the public, one which is either discretely suppressed or given voice only in the shrill headlines of national tabloids.

The installation included an open portal (an entrance to the House of Cards), two glass cases for the display of theme “gifts” (damaged goods and imperiled globes), and an eye-level Plexiglas shelf extending around three walls of the gallery. Twisting the conventional categories of birthdays, anniversaries, births, and other special occasions such as Mother’s Day (with its new “blended family” sub-set), Rothenberg classified her cards under headings culled from the unsweetened politics of contemporary life: the economy, foreign affairs, sexual abuse, racism, and crime. One section entitled “Hope” contained a solitary card.

Placing the front and inside rejoinder of each card side-by-side, Rothenberg manipulated the predictable narratives and anticipatory strategies of greeting-cards—exclamations, rhetorical questions, small puzzles, seductive introductions—to broach difficult and unruly subjects. “Sorry . . . about the unusually high rate of cancer in your neighborhood.” “I know that I made a mistake when I raped you...I thought that no meant yes.” “An invitation . . . Please join us in burning some sacrilegious and obscene books!” The gouache on paper images accompanying these aggressive texts were flat, colorful, and prosaic. Subtlety was not a hallmark of Rothenberg’s iconoclastic cards, but their commercial presentation rendered her fierce, uncompromised observations particularly persuasive.

With this series Rothenberg launched two assaults: against the commercialization of feeling and against our own complacency. House of Cards became a deafening cacophony of the lunacies and inequities of contemporary culture. Playing with the saccharine sentimentality, obvious ploys, honed superficiality, and calculated remoteness of “Hallmark” tributes (promoted as giving expression to every possible occasion and life event) Rothenberg disclosed the difficult, genuinely-experienced events of a world they exclude. The dulling, formulaic strategies of commercial sentimentality were Rothenberg’s subversive weapons. We got the message.

Patricia C. Phillips