Roger Rothstein: Cultural Residue
Roger Rothstein’s creative work brings to mind the imaginings of a child locked up in his bedroom for miscreant behavior for hours at a time, surrounded by drawers-full of tiny miniature figures, Coke bottles, treasure chests, shiny gems, anything easy enough to hide away for an immediate presentation of intact mental stability in the case of an unexpected visitor. In a deliberate avoidance of high art processes and materials, Rothstein gravitates to unlikely media such as snack foods, miniature dollhouse and architectural model supplies, calendars and cheap portraits from the local 99-cent store, and nostalgic toy-store materials like Etch-a-Sketches and Lincoln Logs, couched in an amalgamation of references ranging from Chinese painting, nuclear war, and American pop culture. Boiling down the mish mash of images from news stories, atomic bomb scares, Sally Struthers, seventh grade social studies, art history from a book, the rise of Bruce Lee, Sukia, science fiction, and divorced families, Rothstein’s work reveals the anxiety-driven, chaotic, and emotionally detached effect of the postmodern experience on a generation coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s, and the intense effort this artist has put into forcing the overload of information and images into a worldview that amounts to a sense of absurdity with which he has remantled an interpretation.
The work of several working contemporary artists today are marked by a desire to re-create an emotional reengagement, as evidenced by the prevailing themes of the last Whitney Biennial in 2004. Curator Debra Singer describes these impulses in terms of nostalgia, and purposeful misremembering, “recalling deliberately and imperfectly lived experiences, received historical notions, and learned styles…in which Minimalist and Postminimalist stylistic languages collide with references to interior design, popular music, literature, architecture, and the American suburban landscape.” The current post-Pop, post-cybernetic, and post-pluralistic state of the art institution has, for Rothstein, created a state of self-reflexive cynicism, leading to a crisis in connecting ingenuously with the transcendental possibilities of art.
This nostalgic desire is readily apparent in consideration of Rothstein’s choice of materials. The Etch-a-Sketch portraits (figure 1) are a clear allusion to a childhood occupation, a toy that challenges a child’s ability to draw by limiting the movement of the mark-making utensil to a mechanical process of turning two knobs, one that will move the penpoint scratching away an electrostatically-adhering line of aluminum flakes vertically, and one horizontally. Rothstein’s obsessive nature, born from an escapist isolation, compels him to develop his “drawing” skill on the Etch-a-Sketch to overcome the rigid technical machination that tends to create grid-like lines. He shows a remarkable technical facility, composing his pictures with a fluidity and cohesiveness that distinctly evokes a specific period of graphic illustration, creating images reminiscent of American animation of comic-book heroes, futuristic cityscapes, and other references to the fantasy world of pulp fiction from which he regularly draws. In this way, he establishes a referent time-place that a generation contemporary to Rothstein will immediately recognize from childhood visual culture.
The escapist isolation within which Rothstein developed this skill is also an important communal element that binds this postmodern generation together for two reasons: (1) the proliferation of mass communication outlets has created a pluralistic culture in which the hegemonic visual experience of the pre-electric age splintered into individualized private experiences, and (2) in the wake of the sexual revolution and re-defining of familial roles, particularly those of women, a generation of children was born who were casualties of a sudden epidemic of divorce and double-income families. The ultimate result of this combination was an unprecedented level of choices of solitary activity that became increasingly complicated in their fantastical elaborations, offering escapist solace from the Age of Anxiety, brought on by the electric contraction of the globe into a village, as Marshall McLuhan has described it.
The nostalgic tendency to create a referent time-place, a fixed and “tangible” location and point in time, is also a response to the dissolution of geographical boundaries, and to the postmodern experience of time that is no longer necessarily linear or chronological, a result of video recorders, television syndication, and other time-warping innovations. The consequence of technology making worldwide travel accessible and relatively affordable on a mass level, and the creation of the virtual global village via the internet, movies, television, and the globalization of commercial brands, has rendered the idea of geographical distances into a concept of cybernetic tourism. Lisa Nakamura posits that this concept has been appropriated by commercialism to reenforce a new paradigm of Otherness, presenting an iconographic ‘unspoiled’ image of the African, Asian, or Native American in order to “shore up the Western user’s identity as himself.” This is one method of establishing a referent time-place. In the reversal of this method, Rothstein establishes his geographic time-place by including the ‘spoiled’ image of commercial trash generated by imperialistic capitalism trampling through a stereotypical re-creation of a Third World ‘get-away’, as in his Temple of Corrugated Aluminum, 2004 (figure 2) in which we see a miniature box of Ritz crackers, a copy of People magazine and Coastal Living, broken English porcelain, and a Pepsi can embedded in the mud beneath a rickety house on stilts, built of corrugated aluminum (leftover industrial material from First World commercialization), amidst a sparse grove of bamboo.
Lawrence Alloway develops the history of Pop art in three phases, the first two accomplishing the goal of reducing the idealism and exclusivity of European aesthetics and then of formal Greenbergian measures of high art, which Alloway deems as having been necessary to connect the diverse sources from an increasingly congested mass media into a unified pictorial structure. Alloway connects Pop art to a general tradition of iconographical art, as opposed to the tradition of abstract art that garnered overwhelming attention postwar. The third phase of Pop art, though, he describes as lacking “a grasp of the history their art belongs to, as well as a sense of the internal rigor necessary to art.” This chaotic, iconoclastic, lawless, and rootless state that Pop art created echoes the isolated, parentless, media-saturated consumer culture inhabited by Rothstein. It is precisely this rootlessness and lack of rigor that Rothstein addresses: first, through the creation of the referent time-place, and second, through the creation of his own auto-didactic rules of quality.
Through these self-imposed parameters of internal rigor, Rothstein is able to create a visual commentary on his experience of fractured postmodernism, and also to break out of the cycle of postmodernist cynicism in order to access and communicate the transcendental possibilities of art. His path is particularly interesting because only through the veil of popular art can Rothstein feel comfortable addressing what “fine art” has appropriated as its own realm, dialectically pointing out that Pop art, by opening up the idea that art should be a democratic reflection of external referents, destroyed the spiritual and emotional possibilities, albeit on an extremely personal and intimate level, as evidenced by the miniature scale of his work and the seemingly absurd subject matter.
The obsessive attention to realistic detail and scale apparent in Rothstein’s architectural sculptures Temple of Snack Foods, 1996, and Temple of Corrugated Aluminum, 2004, reveal his determination to unload fully an idea from his imaginings, an occupation of the mind to drown out why the metaphoric child is being punished, while confronting the viewer with our own preconceptions of the Third World and misunderstandings of the mystical Orient (I use the word Orient here as interchangeable with the idea of the Other, as elaborated on in Edward Said’s influential essay on Orientalism.). Further provoking our sense of political idioms of the Other, Rothstein presents a series of Oriental scenes of “birds and flowers” and “landscapes,” two major genres of Chinese painting with their own implications, in his Silk Collage series, 2003 (figure 5 and 6) with bits of American pop culture junk, such as Tide bottles, Kodak boxes, and Parliament cigarette boxes, embedded within the body of the work. Rothstein is once again commenting on the ubiquitous presence of imperialistic commercialization.
It is important to recognize that Rothstein has deliberately gravitated toward “Other” subject matter as a means to reestablish spiritual relevance in his work. Fine art, as an institution, through the museums, international platforms such as biennials, and the art market, has become an iconic symbol itself in contemporary visual culture, having its own esoteric rhetoric of theoretical interpretation deriving from psychoanalytic theory, structuralist theory, Minimalist theory, and Conceptualism. Modernism, by losing the accessibility of narrative, coinciding with a rapid expansion of the middle-class able to afford art as a commodity in the twentieth century, has appropriated the mantle of high art. Consequently, Postmodernism has appropriated low art processes, adopting formerly outsider artists as part of an acceptable canon (complete with its own system of dedicated galleries, fairs, and auction sales), further blurring the parameters of fine art, and ostensibly creating a new appreciation for Outsider art. Said’s original sense of Other, in its geographic sense of the Occidental versus Western, is also being obliterated with the dramatic rise of a new culture of aesthetics in contemporary art, reorganized around informational presence (media) rather than geography (historically the West: Europe and America). “Having a biennial reveals a desire to be seen as a region of modern culture. Even in countries of economic and political hardship, they provide a virtual sense of being part of a technologically connected world,” as Homi Bhabha is quoted saying in a New York Times article on the rising trend of international biennials of the last decade. Rothstein’s sense of isolation keeps him mining the troves of subculture, in its constantly fluctuating dialectic definition.
In this manner of skirting high art, Rothstein allows himself the freedom to address the transcendental, spiritual possibilities that have become the new banalism in the current discourse of contemporary fine art. Rothstein is tapping into an historic folk tradition of disseminating ideological subject matter in kitschy and accessible icons, such as the propagandistic reduction of the iconic portrait of Mao Zedong to buttons and talismanic taxicab adornments during the Cultural Revolution in China, or the proliferation of Virgin Mary candles or gilt-framed pocket-size reproductions of Jesus of Nazareth in Latin culture. By appropriating the light-hearted accessibility of kitsch, Rothstein is able to prevaricate the cynicism of contemporary art discourse while preserving the sanctity of the high art process he is referencing. Just as the images of Mao or Jesus have become iconic references to power structures appropriated in various ways by consequent artists cross-culturally, as in Warhol’s Mao series, from 1974 (figure 3), and Zhang Hongtu’s (b. 1943) series Material Mao, from 1992 (figure 4), Rothstein appropriates the idea of the Other as a commentary on the power structure of the art institution. In his Silk Collage series, Rothstein specifically utilizes the ideology of the Orient as his Other.
The inscrutable Orient has served as the opposing ideology of mysticism, spirituality and intuition against the scientific rationale of Western Enlightenment, consequently having a tendency to attach itself to disempowered and alternative subcultures such as those associated with musicians, artists, and female properties. Within the discourse of contemporary art in Alloway’s third phase of Pop, Eastern mysticism and philosophy has attached itself to a fashionable trend, evidenced by the popularity of yoga classes in fashion magazines and the mainstreaming of martial arts in big-screen movies. This latter trend is a culmination of an intertwining of martial arts and Black power as outsider cultures from the restless 1960s empowering themselves ultimately through mass media, our modern-day method of “kitsch-ifiying” transcendental ideas, in a sincere effort to make their concepts accessible. This very fashionability of subversion, though, has relegated Eastern mysticism to the fringes of perceivably acceptable subtlety or conceptual subject matter in the realm of fine art, once again trapping the artist in a spiral of cynicism that obviates the need to point out the transcendental possibilities in his subject matter. Jonathan Fineberg describes postmodernism as a state that has a lack of stable historical referents--a result of the proliferation of mass media and popular culture, permitting “a fluid reconfiguring of one’s experience of the world, continually changing juxtapositions and sequences in a manner that fundamentally destabilizes their meaning.”  Rothstein addresses this crisis by utilizing a complicated system of layered appropriationism to couch his sublime goals in a nest of cynicism.
These tendencies, traced back to Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, came to their first realizations in the works of Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Sigmar Polke, Fred Tomaselli, and Jeffrey Koons. Collage has been an important element in each of their works. Collage, as a technique, is subversive in that it (1) removes the artistic gesture, (2) removes from the art object the process of high art materials and processes, (3) has association with folk art, (4) lends itself to appropriationism, and (5) has become a logical process for artists to attempt, considering the death of originality, as described by Rosalind Krauss in her discussion of the aims of the avant-garde in 1985.
In a conspicuous example of this process, Rothstein completed his Nuclear Landscape Collage series, 2001 (figure 7) presented in a group exhibition of Jewish and Muslim artists’ work post 9-11. Confronting the audience with the stark reality of the apparent emergent threat of nuclear proliferation throughout “rogue” nations around the world, Rothstein collaged images of mushroom clouds clipped directly from copies of the United States government’s own photographic records of the nuclear weapon tests from 1953 to1957. The backgrounds are bucolic landscape scenes printed on generic, holiday greeting cards or shiny posters, mass manufactured on textured, metallic cardstock. The direct violence of the bombs is offset by the kitsch quality of 99-cent store landscape posters, similar to the desensitizing effect of film director Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series, in which Tarantino mediates his most violent scenes in kitsch absurdity, appropriated from the subculture of Hong Kong action films (thus we see an appropriation of an Oriental Other by an artist that considered himself an iconoclastic outsider to the film industry).
In a more multilayered analysis of Rothstein’s appropriation methods, though, I turn again to the Silk Collage series. At first glance, this series seems to be the result of an artist not properly trained in Chinese or Japanese art history. The series depicts a fused confusion of allusions to the decorative qualities of Japanese screen paintings with the severely ascetic tradition of Chinese literati wenren painting. His appropriated references of subject matter: painter-poet recluse, birds and flowers, fish among lotus leaves, the “Three Friends of Winter” (bamboo, pine tree, and rock), appear to be hackneyed allusions to the mystical Orient. Even the appropriated styles of Oriental painting range in confused combinations of references to: the highly realistic period of paintings in the Southern Song tradition in the 10th century, the decorative Piling style of the late 13th century, the conceptual spatial distortions of Bada Shanren’s fish paintings in the 17th century, and the plunging waterfalls and expansive landscapes, a tradition that extends back to the Northern Song dynasty in the 11th century through the Qing dynasty into contemporary Chinese painting. Upon closer inspection, the hidden embedded hints of the tainting of these poetic scenes reveal themselves in the form of disguised consumer trash, such as the Tide bottles in the form of flowers by the stream (figure 6). This example offers the key to Rothstein’s intention of using subculture to reveal the duplicitous state of the art institution.
By appropriating folk interpretations of the high art tradition of Chinese literati scholar painting, Rothstein is able to evoke the revered role of the Chinese painter as poet, and as such, metaphorically redeems the role of the Artist as Transcendental Myth-maker. On another level, Rothstein successfully usurps the guise of postmodern cynicism in a clever subversion of its own concept by appropriating techniques that have historically been relegated as inferior in Western tradition: collage, folk art, garish color, cheap and popular materials, decorative art, graphic art, perhaps even the entire genre of Chinese painting, without distinguishing between the high and low traditions within this huge genre. He thus reveals an underlying power structure in art institutions, while cloaked in a seeming artlessness. The mischievous child once again misinterpreted by the discerning parents.
Rothstein, working exclusively in collage, addresses and incorporates the subversive tendencies in his work, ultimately admitting the futility of originality in the postmodern state by deliberately avoiding high art processes, not as a subversive statement against the institution of high art, but in an inversion of that seemingly subversive message, as reverential in not deigning to attempt to duplicate the mastery of high art processes. In contrast to the works of Rauschenberg, whose intention was originality through the blurring of life and art, or Hamilton, who wanted to point out the visual construction of the psyche as a result of mass media, or Warhol, who pointed out the futility of originality with the homogenizing effect of mass media, or Koons, who wanted to test the limits of popular and elite culture, Rothstein keeps bringing us back to a straightforward message through a heavily mediated process, simultaneously disguising and blatantly presenting his reverence for the wonderful absurdity of art in all its high and low forms, and its consequent ability to comment on our detached and mediated capability to connect to a powerful emotion.
 Debra Singer, “The Way Things Never Were: Nostalgia’s Possibilities and the Unpredictable Past,” Whitney Biennial 2004 (New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 2003), 23.
 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (London, 1964); rpt. in Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and George Wood (Blackwell Publishers, 2003), 754.
 Lisa Nakamura, “’Where Do You Want to Go Today?’ Cybernetic Tourism, the Internet, and Transnationality”, Race in Cyberspace (New York: Routledge, 2000); rpt. The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff (New York: Routledge, 2002), 259.
 Lawrence Alloway, “Pop Since 1949,” Artforum (October 2004), 276.
 Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978); rpt. Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and George Wood (Blackwell Publishers, 2003), 1005.
 Ann Wilson Lloyd, “Rambling Round a World That’s Gone Biennialistic,” New York Times, 3 March 2002, sec. 2, 34.
 Francesca Del Lago, “Personal Mao: Reshaping an Icon in Contemporary Chinese Art,” Art Journal, Vol. 58, No. 2 (Summer, 1999): 46-59.
 Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), 386.
 Rosalind Krauss, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths,” October, no. 18 (Fall 1981); rpt. in Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 1032.
 Jonathan Chaves, The Chinese Painter as Poet (New York: China Institute), 2000, 54.
 Conversation with the artist, 2004.
 Rosalind Krauss, “Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image,” ArtForum, December 1976, 36.
 Lynn Cooke, “The Independent Group: British and American Pop Art, A ‘Palimpcestuous’ Legacy,” in Modern Art and Popular Culture: Readings in High & Low, ed. Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1991), 203.
 Interview of Andy Warhol, “What Is Pop Art? Interviews with Eight Painters (Part 1)’, Art News (November 1963); rpt. Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 747.