New York

Martha Rosler

Gorney Bravin + Lee

Conceptual and performance art by women in the ’70s have finally entered the herstory books. Retrospectives of the careers of Joan Jonas, Ana Mendieta, Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneemann, and Martha Rosler have all been mounted in recent years. Mary Kelly was in the last Whitney Biennial, and in 2002 at White Columns, “Gloria: Another Look at Feminist Art of the 1970s” introduced the likes of Hannah Wilke, Dara Birnbaum, and VaLIE ExPORT to a generation of artists who were standing on their shoulders. Such canonical adjustment is invaluable, but it’s not the same as new work being made by the pioneers. And, where canon building is concerned, it’s especially risky for such trailblazers to revisit now-famous projects, over which traces of their younger selves, bygone milieus, and accumulated critical judgments hang like an obscuring haze. Trust Rosler to be not only ornery enough to try but artist enough to succeed.

“Photomontages: 1965–2004” revisited the two most reproduced series of Rosler’s career, “Beauty Knows No Pain, or Body Beautiful,” 1965–74, and “Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful,” 1967–72. The coerciveness of prepackaged femininity and the nauseous entwining of postwar American consumerism with the destruction in Vietnam inspire these montages, in which ads filled with nubile models are made to speak against themselves and lovely homes are infiltrated with shots of burning villages, napalmed peasants, and tense GIs. Gorney Bravin + Lee presented twenty images from these series, along with “House Beautiful: The Colonies,” 1966–72, a lesser-known series, also collaged from home-decor and news magazines, about the “conquest” of outer space.

Today, American wars, alas, continue, and commodity culture and imperialist politics have grown more entangled than even Vietnam-era activists could have imagined. Rosler’s new series has no title but follows the same strategy as her previous works: Glossy ads for domestic luxury are juxtaposed with images from Iraq. In one, a pristine kitchen houses not a complacent Martha Stewart disciple but Private Lynndie England holding her infamous leash, which stretches out of sight behind the counter. Magazines on the countertop show other torture scenes from Abu Ghraib, while outside the picture windows a Baghdad firefight rages. In another work, Saddam Hussein’s ruined palace is disinfected by a maniacal housewife wielding a gunlike spray bottle, while the perspectival regression of grand, broken windows mirrors the time-lapse multiplication of the woman’s body, agitated into overlapping freeze-frames by her zeal. In a third, particularly disturbing piece, a young woman lounges on a modish easy chair, her feet flung across its back, her head on the carpeting. She’s resting her head on her hand but looks dead, red accents peeping through her glamorously “deconstructed” outfit like shrapnel wounds. Behind her, helmeted grunts search a rubble pile.

This work echoes some of the best-known images from “Bringing the War Home,” such as Red Stripe Kitchen, which shows soldiers prowling a breakfast nook and Cleaning the Drapes, which depicts an ecstatic housewife vacuuming curtains that part to show a patrol in no-man’s land. In her latest show, Rosler unfolds a multilevel conversation that extends beyond the encounter between her older and younger selves to encompass a wider meeting of then and now. Printing has improved dramatically, and new appliances have been invented, but advertising vernacular has not changed. Rosler can do as much with glue and scissors in 2004 as she did in 1966. The new images are not Photoshopped, but their plunging perspectives, unsettling shifts in lighting, and eerie infiltrations of one reality into another are only more disturbing for their technological simplicity. Most important, Rosler’s new work encourages us to ponder the nightmare return of a quagmire war. If deft montage were not perennially effective as agitprop, Rosler could not have turned back so persuasively to her archive. If there were not another war to bring home, she wouldn’t have had to.

Frances Richard