4.12.17 — nth-Generation Feminist

Marianna Rothen is an nth-generation feminist. I would fill in the n, but by now I have lost count.

Besides, to pick up from last time on images of women (and the subject of a longer report as my latest upload), her work is all about multiplicity. She and her friends pose in photographs that dare one to pin them down or to tell them apart. One has seen them, for certain, somewhere before. It might have been in a theater, a video stream, a gallery, or a museum. Marianna Rothen's Pins and Needles (from Shadows in Paradise) (Steven Kasher gallery, 2015)

If that sounds all too familiar, it should. Her Shadows in Paradise riffs on an industry that depends on both darkness and dreams, the movies. In particular, Rothen explains, she draws on Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Robert Altman’s Three Women, and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, at Steven Kasher through April 15. Like them, she stages a woman’s dislocation, and the multiples add up. Altman himself, after all, drew for inspiration on Persona, and Lynch was remaking the glamour and melodrama of a Hollywood that had long gone. The psychological truth-telling and avant-garde stylization of Bergman in the 1960s and Altman in the 1970s, in fact, had done a great deal to chase it away.

Rothen moves in territory familiar from the 1980s as well—the “Pictures generation” of Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons. Sherman, of course, made her name by posing for Untitled Film Stills. And Simmons posed dolls for what could be a film perpetually in progress. Rothen, too, plays feminine roles, while looking so doll-like at times that I mistook her for a toy. Men, I suppose, do that sort of thing. So did Alfred Hitchcock and film noir.

Her technique, too, produces multiples while simulating a lost original. She works digitally in both color and black and white, before rephotographing prints as Polaroids for their pre-digital sheen—and then she scans them and prints them again. Her characters live in what her previous solo show called a “Pheromone Hotbox.” They stare out windows or into mirrors, pose against old-fashioned wallpaper, nurse whiskey, lie dead, or hold a gun, in dated costumes and curls. They favor close-ups, strong contrasts, shallow depth of field, and unsettling camera angles. They play to expectations for an independent woman as vulnerable, desirable, and above all a threat.

Those expectations extended to a woman not often known for her regrets. Rothen also appears in video, on facing screens, as Woman with the Crown. Once again, strong lighting and old hairstyles make her a living doll. She takes on various roles while speaking the same text slightly out of synch, so that it appears to echo itself—generally once with emotion, the other flatly. The text, about a woman as sex object, turns out to quote an interview with Lady Di. Who knew that Diana felt so at a distance from the idol that she had become?

Of course, a fascination with Lady Di also goes back a ways. Is Rothen just late for the party or keeping it going? Is she upping the ante or viewing even feminism through the filter of today’s hot fashion magazines? Is the nth degree a repetition or an extreme? Maybe both, but the seductions are real. Then, too, after the 2016 election, working out the generations of feminism matters as well.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

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