Jesse Rosser

> Originally trained as a painter, Jesse Rosser began working with video in the late 70s in the wake of one of the most significant confluences within contemporary art: the rise of the feminist movement and the birth of video art. In retrospect, curator Mary Jane Jacob observes, "access to video… allowed women and others — until then marginalized by the mainstream — to have an equal voice. Through these new genres they could proclaim a place for themselves in the artworld that could be achieved through the Western, male dominated field of painting."1 Inspired by Lynda Benglis' video, which she first saw during a workshop for women artists led by Benglis, Rosser put aside her own brushes. Her subsequent work furthers an important tradition of women in video by continuing to explore those features which attracted women to the medium in the first place. Namely, video as diary, as mirror, as timekeeper, and as a means of conveying subjective vision and content.

Among video's pioneers, many used the camera to explore the everyday aspect of women's lives, such as Nancy Holt's Underscan (1974), which frames photographs of her aunt's house while a voiceover reads from the woman's letters. Incidents (and sounds) from Rosser's own daily life as a mother and an artist raising children on Manhattan's Lower East Side are recorded throughout her work. Audio, when it occurs, often snaps on like a radio, or intrudes as noise overheard in a room or from the street. Her young sons at play are the subject of her earliest work, Toothpicks (1976). A daughter, introduced through this mother's watchful eye/camera as an infant in Baby Jesus (1979-1981) literally matures with her mother's art. By 1987, the infant is a young girl playing with a friend within the small confines of a tenement apartment in Home and Hearth, The Magic Marker ( 1987-1997), a work that integrates passages of computer animation.

In a germinal essay on video art, Rosalind Krauss attributed a seemingly inevitable narcissism in works by both men and women to the camera's mirror-like presence in the studio.2 For women, this afforded a new opportunity to switch their role as observed subject and take charge of their own representation in art. Joan Jonas' Mirror Check is a video documenting a 1970 performance, in which the artist scans her entire nude body through a small, handheld mirror. Rosser's Home and Hearth ends with her lowering her own naked body into a bathtub and shaving her legs. As seen from above and behind, the figure appears abstracted, caught in awkward self-absorbed poses similar to the Impressionist Degas' bathers, but here the bather is also the artist.

Water provides a recurrent motif in Rosser's work, particularly in the form of steam. In Moonflower (1994-1996), a steaming Melita coffee cone is formally juxtaposed with a white blossom the artist is growing in her rooftop garden. And there are many kettles on the boil, marking time in that way that video has allowed (and sometimes demands) us to experience real time.3 For the nearly 10-minute duration of Anna Bella Geiger's Passages (1974), we watch a woman climb a series of increasingly steeper staircases. The video makes symbolic use of the repetitive task-like actions central to art of the 1970s, by offering a metaphor for the passage of women's lives. Likewise, in Rosser's Elbow Goddess (1991-98), we look through a glass door, at an older woman laboriously scrubbing a flight of stairs, step by step, with a mounting sense of impatience alternating with humility.

We watch the woman through a glass door that appears to have flowers painted on the surface. But the flowers are actually drawings inserted into the video — a technique Rosser recently introduced to underscore the subjectivity of her works.

Elsewhere, her use of synthesizers, animation, and refraction are all deployed to a related purpose: showing reality manipulated into images that sometimes verge on abstraction. Rosser's installation Geisha (2000) marks her return to painting by hanging watercolors in the space with video projections of a work Rosser made in Japan of geisha buying sandals inside a shop, which, seen from the street, becomes a tiny theater.

In terms of scale, Long Wall is Rosser's most ambitious installation to date. It is also uncharacteristically public; most of Rosser's work has focused on her own domestic landscape and family. After her visit to China in 1998, Rosser composed Long Wall, an animated panorama of futuristic abstraction, which brings to mind the Great Wall of China. Although the Great Wall is never actually seen, its running length and global legend — as well as a sense of travel — are all suggested.

Despite the myth, the Great Wall of China is not visible from outer space, as confirmed by astronauts, who have checked for its 1,500 mountainously contoured miles from their capsules. Nor is the Great Wall a single wall protecting Chinese civilization against Mongol hoards, but a network of fortifications, open at places and easily marauded. These myths originated in the West, attracting tourists since the 19th century. The Chinese themselves didn't even refer to it as the Great Wall until the 20th century, when they adopted the site's reputation abroad to inspire patriotism within. First around 1912, the Wall was newly revered by founders of the Republic of China. Then in 1966, it became a target of cultural revolution, when Mao Zedong ordered all vestiges of Chinese tradition be destroyed. After the Chairman's death in 1979, the Wall was extensively restored, and, with the gradual re-opening of China to the West, it has resumed its status as a classic tourist destination. Perhaps it is this romanticism that has interested so many artists. When Andy Warhol, who made Pop wallpaper from Mao's portrait, traveled to China in 1982, he declined to visit the man's tomb, but made a day-trip to the Great Wall outside Beijing, where he had his picture taken. Post-modernist Laurie Simmons made a reproduction of the site — visited by Americans, who are represented by plastic "teenette" figurines — the subject for one of her famous suite of tourist photos, from the 1980s.

Long Wall is projected as three sequential silent tapes onto a 24-foot long screen. The screen forms a corridor along one wall of the gallery, becoming a luminous passage for viewers to enter. The video is also visible from the reverse side. It runs as a loop of images that go from being mysteriously minimal (scratchy marks that look like bundles of chromosomes) to weirdly complex (a woman's head snipped off her body and morphed into a sci-fi automaton). At some point while viewing, it becomes apparent what's going on. The artist pointed her camera out the window of a moving vehicle, then edited the tape using a computer to cut the landscape in half horizontally and double it to fill the screen. The effect is the kind of mirroring that one sees in a Rorschach test, a kaleidoscope, or at the water's edge. (In fact, the artist says that she was inspired by a collection of old photographs of a flooded Ohio town — trees and buildings abruptly cut off and reflected in the rising tide — found at a flea market.) Where the two images join, there's a seam of tension, as between two pools of mercury resisting the attraction to merge into one. Viewed vertically, the rhythm is of waves lapping and gobbling their way across the screen. The journey through town and country, as constructed on the long screen and through loops of tape, mimics the Wall's seemingly endless length. Seen along the way, modern day electric towers resemble the watchtowers erected at intervals in sections of the Wall during the 15th and 16th centuries. The road, not actually seen in the video, but taken, relates to the Wall's topside, which was flat and wide enough for soldiers to march along. The business of the townscape, contrasted with the streamlined starkness of the countryside is reminiscent of the Great Wall's own complex architecture of ribbons and outposts of fortification. Then there's the very foreignness of China to an American tourist, captured by the synthesized view, which transforms things as ordinary as passing cars into spacemobiles. At the same time, there's the sense of the Wall as a valuable tourist commodity: it remains authentically Chinese in a world increasingly Westernized — as witnessed by the clothes and cars passing by.

In Long Wall, one now sees a conflation of Rosser's constant themes: the use of everyday imagery, the synthetic effect of watery reflection is a kind of mirroring; the looping tape establishes timelessness, the trip itself is a diaristic travelogue. Long Wall is comprised from mundane moments into a ceaseless, abstracted, and rhythmic movement. Rosser's imagery of the nonevents of everyday life has turned the banal into the poetic.

Ingrid Schaffner
New York

1 Quoted by JoAnn Hanley in The First Generation: Women and Video, 1970-75. New York: Independent Curators Inc., 1993. I am indebted to this excellent exhibition catalogue (with essays by curator Hanley and Ann-Sargent Wooster) for directing me to many of the examples referred to in this essay.

2 Rosalind Krauss, "Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism," October, no.1, Spring 1976.

3 Making Time: Considering Time as a Material in Contemporary Video & Film (with essays by curator Amy Cappellazzo, and others). Florida: Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art, 2000.

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