CULTURAL RESIDUE: WORKS BY ROGER ROTHSTEIN
Roger Rothstein (b. 1969) is described by Helen Harrison of the New York Times as turning “ephemera into precious relics,” has appeared on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, MTV and network news, and has been featured for his gravitation to unlikely architectural models made out of improbable materials such as snack foods and his long-running technically astounding portraits in Etch-a-Sketch.
In his first solo exhibition, catalogued on this disk, Rothstein touched environmental destruction, nuclear war, 9/11, and the breakdown of the American family. His work is a distillation of the Gen X experience: apathy, overwhelmed pluralism, and escape into fantasy, through the eyes of one artist. Rothstein’s themes are couched in an amalgamation of references ranging from Chinese painting, nuclear war, and American pop culture.
Rothstein’s 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 his first solo exhibition, Rothstein presents his gravitation to unlikely materials such as snack foods, miniature dollhouse and architectural model supplies, and his long-running technical feats of collage.
Boiling down the mish-mash of images from news stories, atomic bomb scares, “Save the Children” commercials, seventh grade social studies, 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 re-mantled an interpretation.
The obsessive attention to realistic detail and scale apparent in his architectural sculptures Temple of Snack Foods and Temple of Corrugated Aluminum reveal Rothstein’s determination to fully unload an idea from his imaginings, an occupation of the mind to drown out what the metaphoric child is being punished for, while confronting the viewer with our own preconceptions of the Third World and misunderstandings of the mystical Orient. Further provoking our sense of political idioms, Rothstein presents a series of Oriental scenes of “birds and flowers” and “landscapes”, two major genres of Chinese painting with their own implications, as collages on gold silk with bits of imperialist American commercial and pop culture junk embedded into the body of the work in his Silk Collage Series.
Rothstein also presents his Nuclear Landscape Collage series, in which images of historical atomic bomb tests and explosions are collaged into idyllic Western, tropical and Asian landscape scenes printed on metallic paper found at the local 99-cent store. He ponders a sense of tinny absurdity in saccharine scenes jarred by the reality of the most destructive weapon yet developed.
Rothstein ultimately admits 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.
This essay was originally published in 2006.