Over twenty years since its initial MoMA commission in 1992, Erika Rothenberg’s ‘House of Cards’ (1992-2015) still cuts right at the heart of caricatured American culture and values. With the benefit of two decades of social, cultural and political change, a re-staging at Zolla/Lieberman not only allows for a re-evaluation of Rothenberg’s scathing satire of Americana, but to consider it in a post 9/11, data driven world.
The greetings cards, ninety in total, are innocuously presented on acrylic shelves running the circumference of the main gallery space. They are curated into thematic sections beginning with ‘Politics’ and proceeding through broad categories - ‘Racism’ ‘Economy’ ‘Religion’ ‘Lifestyle’. Strikingly the very first card on show - ‘You’re a liar, a manipulator, a phoney and an adulterer – maybe you should go into politics’ - was made just a few months before the inauguration of Bill Clinton, demonstrating that contextual hindsight provides a very different perspective when taking in the work, and also pinpointing the affably jokey veil for serious content that the greeting card format affords.
It is among the sections dealing with ‘Abortion’ and ‘Sexual Abuse’ that Rothenberg plunges deepest into dark humour, teetering on the line of shock and roaming the parameters of bad taste. Whilst the content itself is at times vile (unavoidable when covering rape and such subjects), it is interesting to consider why some cards remain so shocking and others less so – politics, the economy, religion and immigration are regularly satirised, whilst for the main, sexual abuse is still too difficult to address with humour.
Throughout the installation there are ample and darkly hilarious misuses of classic greeting card phrases, but some of the funniest cards also lampoon famous artworks. The Scream laments that “Your country has nuclear weapons!”, while Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘WHAAM’ fronts the message “I heard about your accident! If you want to sue, call me”. There’s digs at the art market too, a self-reflexive element that shows Rothenberg’s willingness to observe and critique faults within the system of which she and her work are part. References to masterpieces and million dollar markets also heighten the amusement of her choice to use the humble greeting card as a fine art support and purveyor of such provocative observations.
The cards themselves, lovingly rendered in gouache, draw on a range of painting, illustration, design and typography styles. In their handcrafted nature they come straight out of the D.I.Y aesthetics of protest signage and fanzines – two modes of expression at the heart of counter culture.
While many of the subjects in Rothenberg’s cards remain (unfortunately) relatable to contemporary circumstance, the gaping void of reference to the internet and social media keeps the installation very much of its time. With the absence of reference to tech and our reliance upon it, also come considerations of the life expectancy of the greetings card and its resilience despite the rise and speed of immaterial digital communication.
In the second gallery, new works continue Rothenberg’s established, caustic view. ‘One World, So Many Ways it Could End’ (2015) takes the form of a comic ‘wheel of misfortune’ that allows viewers to spin the board and randomly select ways in which Armageddon might prevail, from nuclear war to a zombie apocalypse; while ‘America, The Greatest Nation’ uses a white letter board stereotypically used to advertise church services but instead offers an itinerary of ‘teen suicide prevention’, ‘battered spouses’ and ‘the jobless club’.
Rothenberg is one in a long line of artists to paint a bleak picture beneath America’s glamorous façade, but if anything, looking on the installation with two decades of globalisation and mass networked communication behind us, many of the subjects resonate not just with the U.S but with issues worldwide. In a rather last chance saloon way, just as the repetition of jibes from the witty to the sickening is subsiding, the final category in the House of Cards installation is ‘Hope’ – the freedom to critique through satire and art, to have a voice and be able to laugh with it, is the saving grace to the horrible proliferation of stuff that happens in the world, and in ‘House of Cards’ Rothenberg uses it to hilarious and damning effect.