The biting wit of LA-based artist Erika Rothenberg spares no one. In “House of Cards,” the artist takes aim at everyone from hate-filled conservatives to bleeding-heart leftists, the ignorant to the smugly over-educated, CEOs, politicians, Hollywood, and even parents. Over 90 handmade “greeting cards” compose Rothenberg’s House of Cards series, each sporting a quip more caustic than the last. The front of one card asks: “You know what I’ve been wondering since I raped you?” while the inside answers: “Are you always such a lousy lover?” Other cards offer apologies for global warming from grandparents to their grandkids, a plea from a child parishioner to abusing priest, and a suggestion to wear a bulletproof vest to elementary school. The subject matter is unquestionably topical, and the fact that this exhibition is a recreation of Rothenberg’s exhibition at MoMA in 1992 makes the content that much more poignant. After 23 years, we’d hope to be grappling with different issues than we were then.
The fact is, these are indeed ills of which we are well aware, but it’s not simply Rothenberg’s whip-smart reiteration of these points that makes her works so thought provoking. To a certain extent, all art is experienced differently by different viewers with different life experiences, but with “House of Cards” each piece is literally addressing specific demographics of the audience. While one doesn’t need to be a member of the 1% to understand the guilt intended by a card reading “Sorry that your van Gogh dropped to only $30 million,” the feeling of stepping in front of a card intended for you is especially powerful. A message from an aborted fetus to its mother is piercing to any woman who’s made a decision regarding her reproductive abilities, while a piece sarcastically congratulating you on your ability to understand modern art deflates the ego of practically every gallery-goer. With each viewer’s own gender, ideology, medical history, criminal record and socio-economic status comes an extremely personal interpretation of Rothenberg’s messages.
Unlike the Hallmark cards from which Rothenberg appropriates her trope, the works in “House of Cards” are replete with hand-lettering, sketchy graphite guidelines, textured brushstrokes and subtle smudges. Instead of the glossiness and surplus of drugstore greeting cards, Rothenberg’s surfaces are fragile and her designs unique. Their handmade aesthetic reinforces the fact that Rothenberg’s cards are not widely disseminated. It makes one wonder what it would be like if greeting cards like these were mass produced, and in what way such outright and audacious discussion of challenging topics would impact resolution.