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March 19 - April 16, 2005 at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Santa Monica

by Shirle Gottlieb

Ask anyone in the theater world and they’ll tell you a little known secret: good comedy is very serious business. While on the surface it may tickle, titillate, delight or flirt with your senses, it has an underbelly that roams from outrageous ridicule to poking sacred cows or correcting social injustice. At rock bottom, good comedy is about survival.

No one understands this better than Erika Rothenberg, as her current exhibit attests. On display is a series of humorous photographs, paintings

Take the double entendre “Sign of God.” Placing her tongue firmly to her cheek, Rothenberg photographs a gigantic billboard high against a beautiful blue sky. With a marquee that screams “Looking for a sign of God? This is it,” it looms over advertisements for “1 Hour Cleaners” and “Yum Yum Donuts.”

Then there’s a color photograph of the sign that marks the official site of “Los Alamos.” Mounted in a rustic wooden frame it proclaims: “Atomic City. Birthplace of the Atomic Age & A-Bomb. Site of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory & Museum. Gas, food, lodging. 18-hole championship golf course. Picnic areas & other fine sports facilities.” Need we say more?

Or how about “Who Would You Kill,” which was created last year for the “100 Artists See Satan” exhibit (Grand Central Art Center’s answer to the Laguna Museum’s “100 Artists See God” show). Rothenberg fabricated a quilted book that resembles a wedding album with a cover that reads, “If everyone were allowed one free kill a year. . .who would you kill?” She placed it on a table with a quill and holder, then wondered if anyone would have the guts to sign it. She needn’t have worried. It was completely filled the first day. A new book has been made for this exhibit and visitors are encouraged to both read and write in it. What a hoot!

“Sign of God," 2005,
photograph, 29 x 36".

“Los Alamos," 2005,
photograph, 29 x 36”.

“Who Would You Kill," 2004/05,
book/pen/pen holder on table.

“Monument to a Bear” is a concrete memorial sculpture that tells the story (in word and image) of a cub burned in a forest fire. Rescued by wildlife workers, it is nursed back to health, then released into the wilderness--where it is killed by hunters. The irony is hilarious but bitter.

If you missed the nationwide press coverage of the “Freedom of Expression National Monument,” a short explanation might help you appreciate the photograph of this famous public art work. Inspired by Soviet agit-prop, it was originally created in 1984 by Rothenberg, architect Laurie Hawkinson, and performing artist John Malpede on landfill left from the construction of the World Trade Center. Taking the form of a Constructivist-style megaphone on top of a six-foot tall platform reached by climbing a ramp, this delightful bright-red contraption was viewed as a First Amendment Rights monument that enabled anyone who was interested to speak his mind.

Last year, the FOENM was reassembled to allow people to talk back to and in the space formerly occupied by the twin towers on the eve of the Republican Convention. “Bring the boys home,” yelled one New Yorker after climbing the steps. “Elect Ralph Nader” said another, while a third shouted “Read Thucydides.”

Looking at Rothenberg’s photograph, everyone acknowledges that the “sound and fury” of a few brave voices never reaches the current administration. But you can’t help smiling at the Dada-esque courage of this “blowing in the wind” group exercise.