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Women Political Artists in Los Angeles:

Erika Rothenberg's Satirical Vision

By Paul Von Blum

Successful satire shows an enormous capacity to adapt to contemporary life and events. Throughout history, artists working in this tradition focus their critical attention on their own times. Satirical luminaries, including Bosch, Brueghel, Hogarth, Goya, Daumier, Grosz, Heartfield, Nast, Gropper, and many others, used their art to call dramatic public attention to the gaps between human ideals and human realities. Their collective contributions to art history and social criticism are monumental.

Less well known is the parallel tradition of women satirical artists. Because the art world has been dominated by men, many consciously dedicated to perpetuating patriarchal values and practices, the contributions of women artists generally have been ignored or under emphasized. This reality has only recently begun to change, a consequence of continuing feminist activism since the late 1960s. Although still marginalized in art historical and critical literature, the works of several women satirical artists have finally been brought to wider public attention. In the United States, the paintings and prints of Mabel Dwight, Elizabeth Olds, Caroline Durieux, Ruth Gikow, Honore Sharrer, and May Stevens, among many others, have added immense stature to visual satire. They have set a standard of perceptive visual criticism for contemporary practitioners in the same vein.

Foremost among them is Los Angeles artist Erika Rothenberg. A transplanted New Yorker, she has achieved considerable recognition for her artwork during the past decade. Her topics include abortion, workplace sexism, racism, war, social hypocrisy, and many others. Her billboards and window installations are highly visible to much larger audiences than would ordinarily be exposed to visual social criticism.

Born in New York 1950, Rothenberg grew up in a middle class Manhattan family. Although she showed artistic inclinations early, she developed a fuller artistic identity only as an adult. She attended the High School of Music and Art, where she matured artistically and politically. As a teenager during the 1960s social protest ferment, she attended SNCC meetings and anti-war rallies, generating a political consciousness enduring to the present. Like thousands of young people of her generation, she was moved by the era's dramatic activism. She remembers vividly seeing how American values of peace and justice were romanticized in school while being ignored on the streets. She attributes her growing recognition of social hypocrisy to reading <MI>Mad Magazine<D> and to the broader influence of an entire oppositional culture of criticism and dissent.

Her youthful years in New York also brought her into close contact with the art world. In particular, she become fond of pop art, an interest she would eventually adapt to her own artistic and political ends. Intrigued by the works of Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, and others working in that style, she understood its critical perspective about modern society. Her insights occurred just as pop art became the temporary rage of the art world, swiftly commodified and turned into yet another "movement" for art critics and historians.

Erika Rothenberg's activist inclinations intensified after her enrollment at the University of Chicago. In 1969, she participated in a vocal demonstration in support of a female Marxist sociologist in trouble with the University administration. She recalls a sense of rage about the Vietnam war and the other enormous political issues besetting the nation at the time. The University, despite its rhetoric and tradition of tolerance and free inquiry, over responded to the demonstrations. Rothenberg found herself suspended for two years. Unwilling to express regret for her actions, she never returned to university studies.

After a brief stay in Berkeley, she moved back to New York, seeking to establish her personal independence. She found a job in the advertising industry, quickly rising to the position of art director at McCann Erikson, a leader in the field. Her work required her to do "arty" commercials for major clients like the New York Times, Coca Cola, Lufthansa, and several others. Her eight years in this role provided the major influence on her present artistic efforts. She learned how successful advertisers combined words and images to attract the general public. This artistic experience, more intensive and equally valuable as traditional M.F.A. training, has encouraged her to adapt the format of the print and television commercial, transforming the medium into devastating visual satire.

Equally significant, her advertising years provided her with keen insights into corporate culture. In the rarefied setting of Madison Avenue, Rothenberg saw firsthand the deeper sexism of American organizational life. At the same time, she recognized that real human beings worked in these institutions. Her own background, born of personal necessity and fortunate opportunity, persuaded her to criticize corporate power and values rather than the employees themselves. Above all, she saw how the media use their considerable power to promote superficiality in the United States. Glossy solicitations to consume replace analysis and criticism, subtly deterring people from considering solutions to monumental problems like racism and the inequitable distribution of wealth and resources in America.

As a university student, Rothenberg attended various women's consciousness-raising groups. Although she initially rejected them as ridiculous, she had little idea how thoroughly she would eventually accept feminist values and practices.

Her feminist identification informs her art on numerous levels. Beyond her thematic focus on women in her work, she recognizes that women's historical status as "the other" can transform the very process of artistic production. Rothenberg's regular participation in women's art shows fortifies her feminist commitment and encourages a radically different perspective about creative artistic work. Rejecting the masculinist drive to seek stardom and be revered in the art world, she looks instead to foster a community of artists seeking to connect with audiences, rather than to confuse and intimidate them.

Erika Rothenberg's work has contributed enormously to the overall quality and visibility of this vibrant creative community. An acrylic painting from 1987 reveals her powerful satirical vision and reflects the immense influence of her advertising background. "Making The World Perfect" (Figure 1) employs the common "before and after" strategy of modern advertising, using stereotypical images easily recognized by American viewers. This effort mocks and transforms the typical commercials for weight reduction programs, health and fitness clubs, and hair growing schemes.

The "before" section of the work perceptively details the structural inequities of modern life. Starvation and human anguish dominate the world landscape, a reflection of the wealth and power disparities throughout the globe. The all-too-American response is the "Miracle Spray" of superficiality and deception. The colorful butterfly, like the empty platitudes of slick politicians and party platforms, finally hides the real problems, deflecting attention from serious analysis and corrective political action.

The artist extended that theme in another work from the same year. "A Message of Friendship From the USA" (Figure 2) expresses the artist's sardonic reaction to American arrogance and cultural imperialism. The painting highlights the historical lack of sympathy for different values and traditions throughout the world.

Rothenberg's deliberately absurd depiction of a black family in a storybook suburb, replete with a single family house with a white picket fence, encourages viewers to reflect on the deeper foolishness of American attitudes and practices. The artist's skillful manipulation of imagery is designed to provoke thought and critical reflection. Her textual addition at the bottom of the painting underscores the overall message, clearly revealing that U.S. "friendship" carries an enormous price for people in Africa and other third world regions. The artist's satirical vision merges comic overlay with insightful, provocative social commentary.

Erika Rothenberg applies a similar fusion to domestic life in the United States. "America's Joyous Future" (Figure 3) is a devastating indictment of modern life in this country. The composition is entirely textual, adapted to the familiar format of a church announcement board. Indeed, she constructed the work from a package intended for an actual church directory, adding the letters to communicate her personal satirical content. Familiarity with church announcement boards draws people intuitively to this work. Its reassuring appearance increases their curiosity, setting them up for the critical content they swiftly confront. When viewers recover from their initial doubletake, they discover the ubiquitous presence of substance abuse, domestic violence, human alienation, and hunger. The artist links a specific social problem with each day of the week, except for Sunday, the day for the sermon on America's joyous future. The contrast is stark and unambiguous; viewers can hardly avoid the painful recognition that life for millions in the United States is cruel and barbarous.

A recurring theme of Erika Rothenberg's artwork concerns institutional sexism in contemporary America. A dramatic example from 1987 is "Secret Penis" (Figure 4), a painting that simultaneously amuses and unnerves its audience.

A biting comment on corporate America's "glass ceiling," the painting deftly manipulates men's traditional infatuation with their sexual organs into a powerful critique of modern patriarchy. At one level, the artwork offers a standard (and still extremely accurate) feminist objection to exclusion from institutional decision making and power. Rothenberg joins a long line of people noting this exclusion despite women's equal or even superior qualifications. In this painting, she reveals how men create and sustain a clubby corporate atmosphere, reinforcing their perceptions of an exclusive destiny to rule and control.

At a deeper level, "Secret Penis" drives home this point with great irony and emotional force. Mocking artistic convention, the artist accentuates penis imagery, especially in the bottom left panel. Fully aware that these penises are mere symbols, she uses men's infantile obsessions to show the idiocy of their sexist attitudes and practices in the workplace. The prosthetic male sex organ, ostensibly offered to women to help them gain acceptance in corporate life, scathingly advances the satirical force of the work as a whole. By highlighting penises, moreover,

In recent years Erika Rothenberg has imaginatively extended the tradition of public art. Her transformations of billboards and window installations from commercial solicitations to social commentaries are unique in the Los Angeles area. Two projects in 1990 for the Los Angeles Festival drew new audiences to political art.

Recognizing that billboards typically promote excessive consumption, sexism, substance abuse, and other undesirable values, Rothenberg has drawn on her advertising background to create counter messages in this popular visual medium. In "Traditional Families" (Figure 5), for example, she combines images and text to refute the mythology of the American nuclear family. This massive 14 by 48 foot billboard, erected for an entire month on a well traveled boulevard in suburban San Fernando Valley, features a family out of a Norman Rockwell painting: two parents, two children, and a dog. Superimposed over a map of the United States, they represent everything that Dan Quayle romanticizes in his endless rhetoric about traditional values.

As the text indicates, such arrangements exist today, a pleasant reminder to the general public that all is well in American family life--until people read the shocking statistic at the lower right corner of the billboard. Rothenberg again forces viewers to do a doubletake, encouraging them to confront simplistic notions fostered by media and other institutions that conceal harsher truths from the American public. The artist subverts the billboard medium to show how social ideology, like specific commodities, is promoted through advertising. She calculates that "Traditional Families" will stimulate her audience to recognize that most living units differ radically from the romantic ideal. She hopes too that more perceptive viewers may even recognize the pain of millions of U.S. children in single-parent households, struggling literally to survive.

More controversially, she has transformed another powerful instrument of commercialism, the storefront window display. "Have You Attacked America Today?"

(Figure 6) urges viewers to see political dissent as a desirable enterprise, in contrast to its negative image throughout society. This installation, originally shown in New York where it was attacked and vandalized, responds to the current battles over free expression and the First Amendment. Rothenberg has created a counter advertisement offering a new line of products designed to challenge the political order. Beneath the banner bearing the installation's title are a flag burning kit, "Strike Anywhere" matchboxes, "Freedom of Expression Drugs (anti-apathy ointment, protest pills, and "offend" mouthwash), texts supporting free speech, a radical lyrical revision of the national anthem, and other elements designed to provoke ordinary pedestrians passing by the storefront.

The work's most satirical feature of all is the solicitation for the flag burning kit, directly under the word "America" in the title banner. Rothenberg photographed two attractive models for her cutout display. At first, viewers see them proudly holding a large U.S. flag. On closer scrutiny, however, the real impact becomes clear. The young woman, grinning slyly, actually holds a cigarette lighter to the bottom corner of the flag, a disconcerting expression of her own symbolic dissent from American values and policies.

One of Rothenberg's most recent public art projects involves appropriating icons of popular culture. In several exhibitions in the early 1990s, including one at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, she has installed a large series of painted satirical cards that mimic the style of Hallmark and similar greeting cards.

These individually painted efforts look, on first glance, remarkably like the banal if well appreciated messages about birthdays, graduations, weddings, confirmations, illnesses, deaths, and myriad other human occasions calling for responses from relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Rothenberg replaces conventional greeting card language with highly charged messages demanding serious viewer thought.

This greeting card installation (Figure 7), known in Los Angeles as "Greetings 4" and in New York as "House of Cards," substitutes a critique about politics, the economy, foreign affairs, racism, abortion, sexual abuse, art, crime, religion, and many other subjects. The bright colors, simple text, and striking wit attract people, using their initial amusement to stimulate a more comprehensive reflection process.

Any one of these mock greeting cards merits discussion and analysis. Like many of her works, these emerge from strong passions about the issues of our time. In 1991, for example, like hundreds of other artists in Southern California and elsewhere, Rothenberg felt the need to respond to the Persian Gulf war. Her greeting card artistic protest, "Sorry My Country Bombed Your Country"* (Figure 8), reinforces the satirical thrust of the entire project, while simultaneously offering a specific indictment of U.S. foreign policy.

Erika Rothenberg's deepest commitment, compellingly expressed in her outstanding body of political artwork, is to use her creative talents to cause people to think critically about their lives and society and to consider ways to improve both. That premise is shared by the other 14 women artists highlighted in this space for the past 3 years. Their collective efforts bring the present series on women political artists in Los Angeles to a conclusion.