Erika Rothenberg

at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, through July 9

Los Angeles-based artist Erika Rothenberg transgresses the norms of the dominant culture to point out established patterns of inequity. Her show “Human Interest,” at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, attacks the white middle class, whose mores are dictated by the Judeo-Christian ethos, and an entrenched patriarchy whose patterns of male adulation and male achievement in effect subordinate women. Ten separate works range from installation pieces to a series of small paintings. By juxtaposing a number of common objects with text, Rothenberg brings ironic twists and turns to the female experience of white middle-class life.

One of Rothenberg’s most pointed works is Love Story, a series of heart-shaped tart pans inlaid with text and marbleized paper and mounted on the wall. The text recounts, from the man’s point of view, an office romance gone sour: “I definitely was in love with her. I even wanted to marry her. But on the weekend, when we were both supposed to ask our spouses for a divorce, I just couldn’t go through with it. Monday morning, I called her into my office and told her I had changed my mind. The next day I found out that she had filed a lawsuit against me for sexual harassment. My company settled for $1,000,000.”

The Hill-Thomas hearings have shown that the office “romance” is a concept complicated by gender power plays and the inequities that often define such relationships. And while the courts have begun to recognize these imbalances, this has done little to give women more actual power. What women have acquired is a recognition as “victims,” which they then use to undermine the patriarchal structure. As Love Story playfully articulates with the use of heart-shaped “tart” pans, women are still achieving power through sex. They may be entrenched in an unfortunate role, but at least they’re recognized as victims and compensated monetarily.

This is a strong theme in some of Rothenberg’s work: as women gain a more powerful voice, it is a voice of disenfranchisement and subservience that speaks at alarmingly shrill levels. It could be said that feminism has done more to make a certain generation of women realize their second-class status than it has to empower them.

A similar piece, My Sweet Lord, is right on target but unfortunately far too close to what is regularly aired on Oprah. Rothenberg hand paints a “prayer” onto a carved wooden scroll. Like the kitchen plaques with sentimental inscriptions found in tourist gift shops, this is a token, a knickknack, a trivial item echoing Christian values. But Rothenberg’s ironic version is shaded with the darker aspects of female submission to the status quo. A small painted illustration at the top of the plaque shows a T-shirted Jesus and his blond wife in front of a suburban home. The inscription reads:

Jesus wants me to kneel down before him.

Jesus wants me to take off my clothes.

Jesus wants to have sex with me.

Jesus wants me to meet his mother.

Jesus wants to marry me.

Jesus wants to buy us a home in the suburbs.

Jesus wants me to cook and clean for him.

Jesus wants to stay out late.

Jesus is having an affair.

Jesus wants a divorce.

Jesus wants custody of the children.

Jesus has made me very angry.

Jesus wants me to kill him.

Jesus has ascended to heaven.

Jesus says he forgives me.

Jesus plans to return. Someday.

Jesus wants us to get back together.

Here the religious order that perpetuates the culture’s values is vilified as the oppressor. The female perspective reveals the progression of the woman’s submission to male demands, the demands of the “lord,” and the eventual unraveling of the covenant to which she has entrusted herself.

There is an unfortunate confessional air to this work. My Sweet Lord lacks a thoughtful examination of the situation’s inherent complexities, and it expresses a kind of hopelessness about the current state of affairs between the sexes. There’s been plenty of a certain kind of media attention to such subjects–witness the O.J. Simpson case–and this view merely reiterates what’s already out there.

Rothenberg takes a more interesting approach in her installation Men, which resembles a table for a political action committee. A pile of xeroxed fliers on the table reads: “WHO ARE THEY? THEY’RE MEN, America’s largest oppressed minority. And whoever said that they run the world couldn’t have been one.” A number of sobering statistics follow: “Men have such a hard life that they die an average of 8 years earlier than women. They are 3 times more likely to be murdered. They have a much higher incidence of heart attacks, AIDS and cancer.” The flier also attacks purported abuses of men: “Men are subjected to barbaric practices that would be condemned if perpetrated on any other group. Feminists demonstrate against ritual violence to women, for example, but no one protests the ritual violence that young male babies are subjected to everyday–circumcision.” Another abuse: “Men must follow a dress code that is at once puritanically rigid and sexually exploitative. At work, they must obey the most restrictive rules: suits and ties, no loud colors, no skirts or dresses. But in public places like beaches and swimming pools, they must expose their breasts in front of total strangers.”

Emblazoned on the flap of the tablecloth is: “They’re America’s largest minority and they need your help.” Scattered on the table are PAC buttons saying “Part of my sex organ was amputated at birth” and “I’m not allowed to express my emotions.” A collection can reads “Help them now.”

This poke at men’s consciousness-raising groups and the men’s issues that have sprung up on the heels of feminism is more effective than My Sweet Lord in making the complexities of Rothenberg’s argument apparent. While a few of the issues cited may be worthy of concern, the issue as a whole is laughable. The patriarchal culture kept in place by male power structures restricts alternative behavior. Male dominance perpetuates the very attitudes the men’s movement decries, but it doesn’t seem there’s been an overwhelming willingness among men to give up their dominance to even out the scales. The notion of male oppression is ludicrous in light of the economic and physical advantages men continue to enjoy over women.

The subtext to a number of these issues can be found in Rothenberg’s quieter work. Dropping her heavy-handed approach, she explores the anxieties of a culture focused on upward mobility, which determines many of its economic and sexual mores, in a curious, subtle work, The Most Common U.S. Town Names. This is a series of paintings, each inscribed with the name of a town. The paintings are small, only a few inches high by a few inches wide, and each depicts an empty road and its yellow center line and vanishing point fringed with trees and grass; above is a canopy of empty blue sky. In each painting is the name of a town in dripping red letters: Midway, Oak Grove, Riverside, Centerville, Mount Pleasant. They’re familiar names, often attached to places on the outskirts of urban centers.

These identify no specific geographical location but name a psychological destination, a location within the mainstream of white middle-class culture–a culture that exists most assuredly outside the urban fray of stratified classes and racial conflicts. Hidden in the words “pleasant,” “center,” “midway,” “riverside” is the desire to be exempt from the pain of conflict, to be where belonging and sameness are interchangeable entities and qualify entry into the main “stream.” Because the most recognized structure for “belonging” is the family–for which the suburbs are the prescribed ideal–women in particular, as wives and mothers, are subject to the edicts of conformity, isolated within the suburban structure that exists to protect traditional white middle-class values. The desire for a “center,” for middle-class acceptance, for class status is at the core of the American psyche. Is it any wonder that feminism has had such a long row to hoe?

Rothenberg’s work, for all its in-your-face politics, does make interesting points about class, sex, and culture. She gives us a clear benchmark as to where we are; what’s missing, perhaps, is where we want to go.