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.

12.16.16 — The Shadows of Brooklyn

Remember Plato’s cave? In The Republic, Plato likens humanity to cave dwellers, unable to look out into the light. They see instead only shadows on the walls cast by the world outside. It takes the eyes of a philosopher to adjust to daylight—and the mind of a philosopher to know substance from shadow.

Thomas Roma prefers the shadows. With “Plato’s Dogs,” he uses them to evoke man’s (or woman’s) best friends in flight or at play, at Steven Kasher through December 23, and he hardly minds if one mistakes them for the real thing.

Roma could be a product of social media, where dog pictures go down way too easily, except that he largely dispenses with the dog. He is absolutely a product of Brooklyn, which has come well out of the shadows. Thomas Roma's Untitled (from Plato's Dogs) (Steven Kasher gallery, c. 2011–2013)The series took him to a dog run in Dyker Heights, where he trained his camera on the ground. His large prints, all in black and white, add the textures of footprints, soil, and debris to the jagged silhouettes for off-kilter motion studies. It takes a moment to realize that one is looking down—and that the occasional double, paws touching paws, is the living animal seen from above. If the living thing is the shadow of a shadow, what does that say about a photograph of them both?

No wonder Plato, the most artful of philosophers, distrusted art. Roma borrows from the Internet age in another way as well, using a long pole to keep his own shadow out of the picture. He turns the resource of selfies against itself. He also returns to south Brooklyn more than a decade after “Higher Ground,” in which he photographed its elevated subways. There he focused not on the subway cars as with Duane Michals, but on their riders, like Danny Lyon before him—at once within the cave and out of doors. They lie casually awake or asleep in couples, in families, or alone.

Both series, for all their merits, may look too comforting for their own good. I could only think of how nice I had it in the 1990s, when one could still find a seat or even a whole bench to oneself on the subway. A third series turns Roma’s easygoing compositions to more penetrating effect. “The Waters of Our Time” goes back as early as the 1970s for his family, home, and neighbors. It offers the urban tourism of Robert Frank or Lee Friedlander, but without their programmatic impulse, and the concern for the overlooked of Diane Arbus or Garry Winogrand, but without the voyeurism. It contrasts with Miles Aldridge in a back room, whose Polaroids apply the slickness of fashion photography to portraits of desire after Surrealism.

Still, Brooklyn was stranger then, and so was he. Roma already has his spare shadows, including branches lying across the picture plane, and a few dogs as well. He looks down, too, for a man half under a car to finish the job at hand. A girl dressed as a bridesmaid holds a basketball, but more often the oddness appears not in the characters but the point of view. So, too, does his sense of home. A young woman seated by a window, not quite in profile and lit from behind, conveys his love.

A third room has century-old photos of Ellis Island. Augustus Sherman, the chief clerk, encouraged immigrants to dress the part of their homeland, but to celebrate America’s diversity. They look like extras from a costume drama—and not always at ease in their role. A four-legged creature might know better. Plato also called a dog a natural philosopher, because it “distinguishes the face of a friend and of an enemy only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing.” I guess surfaces and shadows are not so misleading after all.

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