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Women in Art: Martha Rosler

Usually when I see an artist (particularly student artists) working with collage I can’t quite shake off the feeling that they’re being lazy.

I’m sure this stems from far too many camp collaging experiences where we just smothered the covers of our journals with chopped up magazines and modge podge, and I also have the nagging feeling that it’s because many of my peers actually are being lazy (I’ve seen far too many half-baked collages thrown together hours before a critique). Collage always struck me as something that may turn out looking wonderful but often lacking in meaning and depth. Appropriating the work of others as the only means of expression in your artwork feels too similar to so many Tumblrs with collage acting as the art world’s reblogging feature.

So when I see Martha Rosler’s work I’m always pleasantly surprised. It goes against all of my preconceived notions about collage (which I’m working on. Sorry to all of those out there who love collage, I’m sure your work is wonderful!). Her work has an emotional value that it might not have in any other medium. By using pre made images Rosler is manipulating the work of popular society into a form of social activism. For example, in her most well known series, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, Rosler appropriates images found in homemaking women’s magazines of the period and juxtaposes them with violent imagery from the Vietnam war.

"Beauty Rest" (1967-72)

We see happy American families enjoying suburban bliss as bloodshed and chaos occur in the background or foreground. Even as violence occurs directly in front of the subject they smile with happy naivety. 

"Cleaning the Drapes" (1967-72)

"First Lady (Pat Nixon)" (1967-72)

Interestingly, Rosler has reprised this body of work, applying the same method of juxtaposition to images from current American women and lifestyle magazines and the war in Iraq. Some critics feel that this shows a lack of imagination and innovation on Rosler’s part, but others (including myself) find it interesting that Rosler is examining today’s events and today’s media imagery with the same eye as in the late 60’s and early 7o’s. The similarities between the two series of images is uncanny. The two bodies of work seem to meld together, and barring the advances in technology could be part of the same set of work.

"Photo Op" (2004)

"Red and White (Baghdad Burning)" (2004)

"The Gray Drape" (2008)

 Rosler’s commentary on the obliviousness of Americans as to the war in Iraq (and previously the war in Vietnam) is perfectly captured in the smiling expressions and lack of acknowledgment by the models used in her work. Despite the violence going on behind them, or being showcased by them as in The Gray Drape, they continue to live their lives as they normally would. This is what we see in the real world. Many of us who don’t have family or friends in the war feel a disconnect from the war. Our lives are perfectly normal despite the violence that affects so many soldiers and so many people living in the Middle East. Of her decision to return to Bringing the War Home Rosler says:

I wanted to – even at the loss of some self-pride – to go back to something that I had done many years before in exactly in the same way, or as close a way as I could, to say ‘you know this work of mine now’ for those who did, I must return to exactly the same form because we have sunk back to that same level, of a kind of indifferent relationship to what our country is doing. I wanted specifically to evoke a mood and invoke a way of working, to say, “Tout la change, tout la même chose.

Martha Rosler

As an American artist of the 60’s to present day, Rosler often focuses on the public sphere and women’s spheres, questioning and protesting the oppression of women. While she seems to mainly be known for her work protesting war and our lack of knowledge about the wars (Most of those pieces actually containing commentary on women’s position in society), she has also created major milestones in feminist artwork. Take for example this video entitled Semiotics of the Kitchen.

Filmed in 1975, Rosler used this video to depict suburban kitchens as a war zone. Her violent movements and abrupt crashing of kitchen implements is paired with the routine of food preparation. This video shows the frustration many women have felt at being trapped in the home.

Check out this site on Martha Rosler’s work. The particular page I’ve linked to includes a list of all of the film and performance pieces Rosler has created. Reading the descriptions you can see that she’s tackling a number of issues relating to gender biases and women’s expected place in society. You can find a number of these pieces by searching on Youtube. Rosler is also a writer, which is a quality I always admire in both my feminists and my artists! Her work covers topics from video, photography, feminist art, government support of the arts, the social uses of food, homelessness, censorship, and more. She’s covered such a wide variety of topics I can’t really wrap my head around the extent of her work.

In short, I’m excited to see what Rosler does next!

3 Comments

  1. Wonderful post. I have not been familiar with her work and find it striking. Thank goodness for, in my mind, this realistic view of war. For those living in/during a war, it permeates every part of their lives and being. There is no shutting of the drapes or hiding out in the bedroom to escape it.

    Reply
    • Thanks. I felt the same way when I first saw her work! Very striking with a great perspective.

      Reply

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