All the economic doom and gloom seems to have put a damper on this holiday season’s typically heavy onslaught of commercials, billboards and radio plugs-- perhaps happily so. A more extreme counterpoint to consumer gluttony can be found when wandering through the contemporary art galleries of The Art Institute of Chicago where Martha Rosler’s series Bringing the War Home, from 1967-72, is now on display in its entirety.
This series of twenty photomontages was created by Rosler during the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Each image mixes collaged photographic journalism from the frontlines of the conflict (typically taken from LIFE magazine and represented in the works in black and white) with advertising copy from House Beautiful, a chiefly women’s consumer publication about decoration, reproduced largely intact with its original full color spreads. Although some of the colors appear muted, they still come off as a sort of retro chic rather then dated or fatigued.
Somewhat reminiscent of Barbara Kruger’s later photomontages that combine black and white ad copy with bits of red and blocks of text, these images speak volumes without employing words, and manage to avoid the pitfall of being an instantly gratifying one liner—perhaps in part due to the brutality of the war imagery spliced within them which merits contemplative reflection.
The familiar Red Stripe Kitchen and Cleaning the Drapes (top image) are on display next to relative unknowns, like Boys Room, Tron (Amputee), which pictures two young, healthy all-American boys in their shared bedroom with an “poster” of a young Vietnamese girl, roughly their age, limping along with a make-shift cane, one leg half missing and plumply swathed. The perverse First Lady (Pat Nixon) depicts a spindly, buffonted Mrs. Nixon in a twinkling, butter cream colored sequenced gown, within an equally warm, corn colored interior (presumably at the White House) standing in front of a mantel which is adorned with a “portrait” in black and white, of the wounded, contorted sufferings of a young Vietnamese girl.
The shocking carnage is tempered by humor, especially in one of the more comical and also less popularly reproduced pieces entitled Runway. Unlike most of the rest of the show, Runway is entirely black and white, heightening the parody by making the photomontaged elements appear seamless. It depicts a bevy of frantic fifties-era housewives bent over and busily scrubbing, vacuuming and pushmowing a generic flight strip of tarmac squeaky clean.
Rosler’s Bringing the War Home images were first circulated in underground papers or distributed as fliers, and it took until 1989 for them to be exhibited publicly within an institution. Almost ten years later, in 1998, they were finally shown together as a suite, and now, another ten years later, they still smack with the same sort of poignancy. Ample viewing space is provided for as they ring the surface of a gallery reserved specifically for them, letting viewers take in each piece inch by inch, or stepping back and seeing all of them hanging side by side.
--Thea Liberty Nichols