How is the body ever not politic? Especially when black youth in hoodies are deemed threats, and women are viewed as commodities of availability...how, in this social climate is the body not politic? Aura Rosenberg and I began a conversation about her work in March of this year, during her I Know It When I See It exhibition at Martos Gallery. The exhibition title refers to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous answer on the nature of hard-core pornography, as outlined in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964). Stewart's answer acknowledges certain social nuances as indescribable yet detectable by the eye. As if our eyes operate independently of social mores—whether or not we are in agreement or in question of such mores.
So how do politic-aware bodies engage worlds of sensation, undeterred by dominant paradigms? Artist and educator Aura Rosenberg paints and photographs through a constant questioning of how the body's personal, sexual, and cultural roles are positioned and repositioned. Rosenberg's work questions the body both as a currency of consumption and a source of release. Working prolifically for decades in the US and in Europe, Rosenberg shows no sign of slowing down: in just the first half of this year, Rosenberg will have had 4 shows in the US. Working with pornography as a subject 20 years ago was not as widely accepted as it is today. The show where we met earlier this year was comprised of images from the golden age of porn: the 70s and 80s. Under her touch, the corporeality of the flesh defies the idea that we 'know it when we see it'—precisely because when we see "it," we want to know more, and the job of "knowing" is really never done.
Here is our conversation about Rosenberg's creative process, her in-depth readings of how photography and painting encircle each other, about media culture and personal desire. This piece is Part 1 of a two-part series with two artists working the spectrum of contemporary pleasure and intellect, where collaboration, politics, and the sense of touch directly critique various degrees of social acceptability. Next week: Part 2!
Patricia: Aura, how do you think painting and photography differ in relation to how women have been represented in art?
Aura: I started out as a painter at Sarah Lawrence College in the early 70s, which was all women at that time. My first subject, typically, was the female nude. My work started to change after I entered the Whitney Independent Study Program. Modernism was coming to a close; the mandate to “purify” the medium, i.e., to affirm the flatness of the picture surface, had turned painting into an end game. I tried processes like rubbings in order to make an image without rendering an illusionistic space. Later, I made imprints using my own body both as a formal device and as a sign.
In general, painting both depicts material and is material itself. Material and image self-reflexively reinforce one another. Because collectors historically made use of paintings to display their wealth and power, in Ways of Seeing John Berger characterizes painting as more a vault in the wall than a window on the world. Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus is a good example. It portrays the Assyrian King destroying his property, including his women, rather than let them fall into enemy hands. Jeff Wall referenced this painting for his photograph The Destroyed Room, which is clearly a woman’s room. Wall stands out as an artist who has considered the relationship of painting and photography vis-à-vis the representation of women.