Visual Arts

UK Art Museum photo exhibit contrasts war, ideal life


The living room where a ponytailed blonde in a skimpy dress poses vampishly for a selfie, her outstretched arms clutching her cellphone, is stylishly upscale, like it belongs in an architecture magazine. A carbon copy of the same woman doing the same thing appears next to her.

Slumped in two chairs in the background are two dead little girls, not carbon copies, who are victims of war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Beyond the floor-to-ceiling window behind them, the sky blazes orange with fire framed by a dark silhouette of tanks and soldiers.

The scene, from a 2004 photo montage called Photo-Op by renowned feminist artist Martha Rosler, is one of 12 works on display at the University of Kentucky Art Museum, where Rosler will speak Friday as part of the Robert C. May Endowment Photography Lecture Series.

Rosler, 69, a native of Canada, is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is a professor of art at Rutgers University. She is most widely known for her pioneering work with found imagery and performance art videos such as 1974's Semiotics in the Kitchen. Rosler has written or edited eight books, and her works have been exhibited in major museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"Most of the work that I'll be talking about," she says, "are photo montages of women in the mass media, particularly print media; magazines and images of war that are put together with scenes of home here in the U.S. so that we see the war which was at that time Vietnam but then subsequently Iraq and Afghanistan."

Rosler got the idea to visually juxtapose images of war with images of idealized American domestic life after seeing them side by side in magazines in the late 1960s. On one page were horrific images of the Vietnam War, on the next page, an ad for a new couch.

She expounded on this jarring co- existence of the graphic tortures of war and the idyllic domestic myths of advertisements in a series called Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful.

"It wasn't about contrasting two realities, but two world views: our ideal self and this other thing which was the unacceptable realities of another place," she says.

The UK exhibit features selected works from the original, Vietnam-era version of Bringing the War Home and works from a 2004 reprisal of the series and another Vietnam-era series focusing on women's images in the media titled Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain.

"I never thought I would be making more of those montages," says Rosler, "but it seemed like it was necessary to remind people that this was not very different than the last time we were in an unwinnable war."

But there are also marked differences between the portrayals of the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that make Rosler's reprised series even more relevant.

"It disappeared in some very real way," she says of the Iraq war.

"When the war began and for a long time after, the Bush administration forbade the photographing of the coffins of soldiers returning home, and, in fact, people lost their jobs for taking pictures of them," says Rosler. "There was an effort to act as though nothing was happening."

While the nightly news during the Vietnam War included a daily body count, coverage of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has avoided such stark realities.

"After Vietnam, subsequent American administrations decided to clamp down on the press and deny them access if they were not compliant," says Rosler. "We all knew about Iraq and Afghanistan, but it was walled off in another space."

While her work visually inserts the realities of war into the fantasies of domestic bliss, she understands why and how the public is so removed from the wars' impact.

"People have to pay attention to daily life," says Rosler. "Lots of people don't know anyone who is in the war, so it's easy to just kind of pretend it doesn't matter when the media is so full of other things."

When our phone interview veers off course to bewilderingly vapid but popular phenomena like the Kardashians, Rosler makes an astute observation.

"This is a version of bread and circuses," says Rosler. "The Romans figured this out a long time ago.

"The Romans were an empire out conquering other people, and lots of Romans died as soldiers, but they could keep the ordinary people placated about the fact that their lives were not so great by what they call bread and circuses.

"We are very big on circuses."


Robert C. May Photography Lecture Series: Martha Rosler

(859) 257-5716.

Exhibit: Through April 14. The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, inside Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. Free.

Lecture: 4 p.m. April 5. UK Student Center's Worsham Theater, 404 S. Limestone. Free.


The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky has released details about some of its exhibits in 2013-14.

Curves From Math, Waves in Glass: Origami and Glass Works by Martin and Erik Demaine. April 21-May 26. Lecture by artists: 5 p.m. April 24 at UK Student Center's Worsham Theatre. Free. Origami and glass sculptures by a father-and-son team who are engineering and computer scientists at MIT.

Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Golden Age Painting in Europe From the Speed Art Museum. June 30-Sept. 22. Some 70 extraordinary 17th- and 18th-century paintings by Italian, French, Belgian, Dutch, German and English artists from the Louisville museum, which is closed for renovations.

Wide Angle: American Photographs From the Collection. Jan. 26-April 20, 2014. Works drawn from the museum's extensive photography collection, including a classic Eugene Atget, a large group of Doris Ulmann prints of Appalachia, works by West Coast photographer Van Deren Coke and a classic large-scale work by artist Cindy Sherman.

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