New York

Martha Rosler

Jay Gorney Modern Art

In her recent exhibition, “Transitions and Digressions,” Martha Rosler embarked on a critical analysis of the links between ideology, economics, and politics. This show included color photographs of shop windows, a series of “road” photos taken with a toy panoramic camera, and a video, Chile on the Road to NAFTA, Accompanied by the National Police Band, 1997, which tracks, through a taxi’s window, the colonization of the Chilean landscape by the images of global capital.

The “road” photographs, all taken in New York and New Jersey, belong to a series entitled “Rights of Passage,” 1994–96, taken through the scratched windshield of Rosler’s car. Half these photographs feature vehicles transporting goods in and out of the city. Perhaps the most striking is Turnpike, NJ, 1995. Here the vanishing point of the highway is formally balanced on the right by a huge scissorlike carrier transporting an alluring array of new cars, and on the left by power lines, poles, signs, and a band of fluorescent, candy-colored hazard cones that follow the highway’s broken dividing lines into the horizon. Over these markers hovers a twilit sky—pale blue clouds shimmering in a violet and silvery background—that recalls the very thing missing from Rosler’s roadscapes: natural beauty.

Apart from a few shots in the videotape, the only image in this exhibition that focused directly on the social realm was Subway, Vienna, 1983. Like the other pictures in this show, it exudes a sense of estrangement, of anomie. A woman looks at her watch; a man at his newspaper; someone else at the floor; all, except one man who stares at us, avoid eye contact. The riders, standing amid an arrangement of spiky metal bars, look as if they had to twist their way through a steely thicket to enter this archetype of modern urban space. The social group is itself fragmented by the vertical bars, underscoring that these passengers form part of a society organized by “schedules, runs, crossings, and loads,” as Rosler, citing the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre, once put it.

In contrast to her previous, more explicitly political projects, such as those on homelessness or airports, here Rosler offers a more general look at the landscapes of late capitalism. The road is not only an escape to difference, it eradicates it. A functional network of distribution, the road does away with “place” (a specific site) in favor of “space” (a homogeneous, abstract whole), as the video Chile on the Road to NAFTA suggests.

There is a symmetry between the road and the logic of commodity display as promise: both require constant maintenance, both demand endless variations on a few themes, both promise wholeness. Rosler’s window-display photographs show narrow interiors in which everything deemed important is crowded into the forefront of the picture plane. In works such as Madison Avenue, New York, 1996, which shows four decapitated female busts adorned with gold bridal jewelry, it’s as if the advertised commodity promised to restore wholeness to the fractured bodies. A similar effect is produced in Soho, New York, 1996, in which women’s suits are displayed on lampshade-headed mannequins, and in New York City, 1995, which features a row of severed heads and a phalanx of garish press-on nails. The corporeal fragmentation in these images echoes that of a society structured around vast networks and systems of distribution. But in contrast to the landscape photographs that are clearly of the moment, the interior views of storefront windows belong to no particular time, as if they weren’t really part of the modern world. The emphatic flatness, the lurid colors, the soft lighting, the use of uncorrected color images, the aquarium view into narrow interior spaces—all give these photographs the appearance of a surreal vision, recalling Louis Aragon’s walks through the arcades of Paris. The window displays, like the landscape photographs, convey a melancholy not always so apparent in Rosler’s more project-oriented work.

Alexander Alberro