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Aura Rosenberg

Mishkin Gallery   March 10-June 9, 2023

Pioneer Works     March 17-June 11, 2023

By John Mendelsohn, March 30, 2023

In the past five months, the art of Aura Rosenberg has appeared in three venues in New York, giving us an unusual opportunity to experience the range of this provocative artist’s projects. Collectively, the exhibitions form a montage of her concerns as they have recurred and evolved over the past five decades.

Rosenberg, who is based in New York and Berlin, has worked in photography, video, painting, sculpture, and performance. But essentially her medium is an awareness of unsettling realities – psychic and societal. There is an intriguing exchange at work here, with Rosenberg using the experience of her own inner adventurous disquiet to create challenging works that reverberate in our own consciousness.

Recently, What Is Psychedelic, a two-part survey curated by Alaina Claire Feldman opened at the Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College and at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. The exhibition is wide-ranging temporally and conceptually, with its many series too multifarious to explore in depth here. But in these presentations, we can see certain themes emerge, at times in new contexts and with new imagery. A catalogue with a variety of essays and numerous photographs accompanies the exhibition.

The exhibition takes its name from What Is Psychedelic,1973, the earliest piece shown at Mishkin. This ten-foot long panoramic painting has the title knocked out of four radiating discs made of thick, translucent acrylic gel in low-down brick and olive. The painting’s melancholy tone evokes the early 1970s, with the liberatory moment of peace and love receding into past, its bright promise refracted into something dark and strange. In this painting is the spirit of the work to come in Rosenbergs’ oeuvre – a cryptic questioning that becomes a mind-expanding critique embedded in visual form.

Aura Rosenberg, Head Shots, 1991–1996, installation view at Mishkin Gallery, 2023 
Courtesy of the artist and Mishkin Gallery. Photo by Isabel Asha Penzlien

This spirit of enquiry, by turn mordant, poignant, or transgressive – or all three together – animates Head Shots, a series 86 photographs from the 1990s, represented by eight images at Mishkin, and twenty which picture the artist Mike Kelly at Pioneer Works. The premise of this series, which focuses on close-up images of mens faces in the throes of orgasm, real or simulated, is a reversal of porn’s once exclusive male perspective.

The eroticized image has been addressed by Rosenberg in a variety of modes over the years. Female bodies are transfigured in The Dialectical Porn Rock via magazine images decoupaged onto actual rocks, and piled into the corner of the gallery. They appear at a distance to be slabs of roast beef, both ruddy and gray, massed into a fleshy cairn. But viewed close up the intimate, photographic details of mediated sex are visible, and the whole array becomes an eerie memorial to bodies dismembered and desire displaced, and released back into nature. The rocks in various incarnations have been installed in a variety of settings, documented in photographs, including a Berlin subway station, and the Swiss countryside.

The erotic is approached in a number of other series, including Statues Also Fall in Love which uses classical sculptures of mythological figures, transforming them into images on rocks, and into lenticular panels with some of the ancient figures shifting into modern-day, naked people. The Astrological Ways, with couples in erotic embrace, has had a variety of iterations including ceramic panels, a high-energy, stylized video, and most strikingly in twelve large-scale body prints in white paint on black velvet, of partners floating in a phantom choreography of passion.

The notion of social practice in art that emerged concurrent with the early phase of Rosenberg’s work had an early flowering in Who Am I? Where Am I? What Am I? (which in itself could be the motto for the artist’s work). In October 2022, the Meredith Rosen Gallery in New York presented eleven photographs from the series. The current two-part exhibition includes two of the images. The photographs of face-painted children are part of an ongoing collaborative project, begun in the 1995, and now encompassing over 80 images. The frissons stimulated by the pictures are multiple: the strangeness and humor of children transmuted by face paint, and the fact that artists have been invited by Rosenberg to do the painting.

Aura Rosenberg, Dialectical Porn Rock, 1989–1993, collage and resin on rocks, dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artist and Martos Gallery. Photo by John Mendelsohn

So, we are witnessing a kind of performance, with Rosenberg as conceptual impresario setting the stage for multiple acts of exposure: of the children, who in their alternate identities appear both vulnerable and self-possessed, of artists revealing a kind of self-portrait via the children they paint, and of the viewer’s own desire to somehow know more intimately these often well-known artist participants. The whole project, like much of Rosenberg’s work, asks who has the power to create an image, who it gets projected on, and our own complicity in the process.

Many works in the two-part exhibition highlight Rosenberg’s involvement with Berlin and the philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin. There is a series of photographs of scenes in Berlin and three short videos, all based on Benjamin and his Berlin Childhood around 1900. Words from the text appear as subtitles, as the camera explores the present day setting that they describe. Both Benjamin’s granddaughter and great granddaughter appear in the videos, with the latter providing the narration. The effect is a kind of holographic vision of yesteryear, animated and overlaid on the present, so that it takes on a kind of double reality, both in Berlin’s vestiges of a remembered past, and in the poverty and migration alive in today’s Berlin.

Benjamin’s meditation on Paul Klee’s monoprint Angelus Novus that describes the figure as blown out of paradise, looking backwards at the ruins of the past, is the source for a number of Rosenberg’s works. There is a five-minute animated video, Angel of History – a compressed mash-up of historical and cosmic time, replete with fragmenting monuments and continual atrocities, ending with a flash of lightning and a glimpse of paradise. And in a series of New York Times front pages, each is overprinted with a transparent image of an individual dressed in white, with wings. The angel of history continues its silent vigil, a witness the day-to-day outrages and blessings of contemporary life.

The Angel of History, 2013, Video, 5:04 minutes, Courtesy of the artist

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