PRODUCTS OF THE PATRIARCHY

by Charlotte Jansen

Mail Order, 2018

“It‘s nice to be included in people‘s fantasies but you also like to be accepted for your own sake. I don‘t look at myself as a commodity, but I‘m sure a lot of people

have,” said Marilyn Monroe in an interview with Life Magazine in 1962. Images are not only fantasy and projection; they are affirmations of our collective desires; they

make us see what we want - or what we think we want. “I just hate to be a thing.” Marilyn said.

Some months after Marianna Rothen began to work on Mail Order – the series of images in which she stars as a silver screen siren among mannequin men – the

Me Too movement was galvanised, starting from the core of the movie industry. Hollywood’s abuse of power has been exposed. The photographs Rothen was making,

alone in the country, were eerily prescient of the atmosphere that has since pervaded – women taking back power, raising their voices louder and louder, demanding

to no longer be seen as commodities. Her photograph titled Harvey – a woman holding herself as a man stands like a shadow at her back – has an entirely different

resonance. Its dark, sexually charged ambience is reflective of our times.

Until now, men have remained markedly absent from Rothen’s scenes. But in the current context of gender politics, it seems necessary to bring men back into the

picture, this time, from a female perspective. Mail Order begins to get at what it means to ‘construct’ an archetype based on a body and sexual preference. The

female protagonist imagines her ideal man–an archetype once removed – and makes him dress, posture, pose, and perform his manhood in the ways she prescribes.

The representation is purposefully flat – we can see that the men in the pictures aren’t real, that they’re inflated by air. As is implied in the title, they are like sex dolls,

mail order partners. Do they now feel, like Marilyn, that they are a “thing”? In Mail Order, Men are literally objectified, turned into objects, one semi-fictional woman’s

projected idea of masculinity and maleness. At the same time, her idea of man-hood is a conventional one: she projects a strong, well-heeled, muscular, virile, hirsute

type. Gun-toting, stetson and waistcoat-wearing. It is the man we so often see in Hollywood movies.

Rothen’s work has always presented archetypes and ideals taken from the silver screen in an ambiguous way. In previous work, often also shot at her country home,

she worked with other women, as well as herself, as her muses. Her sultry, sexy, smoking female subjects have been cast according to the icons of classic American

cinema: Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Russell, Marilyn. In this way, Rothen has deconstructed the archetypes of femininity Hollywood films created: the Blonde Bombshell,

the Femme Fatale, the Agent Provocateur, the Girl Next Door. At the same time, she celebrates femininity, but for the female gaze – their breathtaking beauty doesn’t

deviate from this well-established Hollywood archetype, but it exists in a world without men and their gaze. The women look at each other, and at themselves, in mirrors,

reflected back, and they embrace their image. Rothen creates situations and scenes, in her photographs, where women can fantasize, without the boundaries of gender

and sexuality imposed by a heteronormative eye.

Indeed eyes are essential in Mail Order. In Close To You, the female protagonist’s expression is pure bliss; her male companion, the imagined source of her happiness,

is faceless, covered by a hat. In Easy Rider, we catch a glimpse of her eyes in the rear view mirror – he is out of the frame. In Titanic, she covers her counterpart’s eyes,

her hand between his mane of too-glossy hair and too-bushy moustache. Her eyes control the mood in each picture. The male gaze, meanwhile, is always fixed,

emotionless. Rothen has carefully choreographed who is looking, and who is being looked at – and with good reason.

Interesting, then, that Rothen did not use ‘real’ men. This was in part, because she did not feel safe inviting them to come to model at her home while she was working

there alone. The feeling of intimate, solitary enquiry, distinct from the easy gatherings of women in her previous work, is informed by these real life circumstances and

anxieties around gender. Rothen as photographer is constrained as much as the alter-ego in her pictures is constrained by the ideals of femininity.

Though Rothen’s character is alive, she is also overtly fake; her gender is as much a performance as theirs. The crucial difference is they are not human–Rothen, as

photographer, and Rothen, as model, wields no actual power over these male dolls, no actual men are exploited for her play. She suggests what it is like to be a woman

who is looked at by men and who is powerless; whose identity is puppeteered by the patriarchy. The dolls start to become ridiculous, risible. They have no depth, no

story – like so many of the female leads in Hollywood films. As a former fashion model herself, Rothen’s own experience in front of the camera also shapes the way she

inhabits and examines this position.

All this doesn’t take away from the pleasure in viewing the photographs. We respond to the glamour and poise, to the stylized outfits and the hair, as contrived and

blatant as it is that they aren’t ‘real’. That pleasure itself comes with a deep questioning about stereotypes, and why they persist. We, women, are just as complicit in

maintaining them, dressing up and role-playing, indulging the fantasies and images of the patriarchy. Unlike the real world, however, the men who stand to her side, who

look at her with their blank stare, at whose feet she sits, are just as much the play things of the patriarchy.

Everyone is a fake in Rothen’s catalogue of typecasts. Each picture contains a scene, and each title alludes to iconic Hollywood cinema through the decades, from Baby

Face to Titanic. In these films, part of the contemporary conscience, the female leads are valued first according to the qualities deemed essential in order to be believed

as a woman: beautiful, unstable but submissive. It’s no surprise that the very term the “female gaze,” came as a response to Hollywood cinema, first emerging from

feminist film theory, in Laura Mulvey’s essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, first published in 1975. In that groundbreaking essay, Mulvey speaks of the viewing

experience; of the shrouded, silent darkness of the auditorium contrasting with the light of the moving image. This experience, she writes, puts spectators in the position

of voyeurs, their desires repressed and projected onto the screen. When we look at the photographs, we are also peeking into a private world of projected collective

desire – but it’s a world that is static, and we stand at a critical distance. Our relationship with a photograph is collaborative. We have to find our own narrative in the static

image. We have to speak to it, and for it.

“What chance has a woman got?” asks Lily Powers, the protagonist in the groundbreaking 1933 film, Baby Face. Exploited by the men in her life all her life, Powers

decides to turn the tables. “A woman, young, beautiful, like you, can get anything she wants in the world. Because you have power over men! But you must use men!

Not let them use you.” Responds Cragg, the only man she can trust. Ultimately, the woman – or women – who Rothen plays in Mail Order, demonstrate the explosive

energy of a woman who empowers herself.

ON THE VERGE

by Carlo McCormick

Shadows in Paradise, 2017

Witness and wanderer, we have asked much of photography over its history. It has borne experience and brought evidence, conveying appearance as a matter of

fact and extending vision as far as the eye can see, or even further. It is in this distance beyond perception, and maybe too the intimacy lurking within it, that Marianna

Rothen finds a focal point between narrative and enigma. Just as photography has been able to document and describe the actuality of the extraordinary- say how

radical must have first seemed its early registration of distant vistas, the cruelties of war or even (with the advent of aerial photography) how our world appears looking

down on it- it has had the uncanny effect of making the ordinary somehow out of this world. Rothen looks in the shadows, down forgotten byways, to the make-believe

where our fictions act out a deeper truth, and to the frayed edges of the domestic where the feral gnaws at normalcy, so that in her home, among her friends and by

herself, we can hear the whispers of all that sorrow and violence sounded deep within the society of self.

 

Languid and pensive, reeling under the weight of being, dancing to the desperate muscle memory of survival, Rothen’s women are phantoms of our own anxieties,

portraits of beauty rubbed raw by some ugly truth. They are so alone we cannot help but become complicit as an unbidden witness, the company of empathy that offers

no solace to the solitude. To come to these pictures you must travel alone and pack only the burden of your own isolation. You can stare if you want, they allow prurient

curiosity as they invite voyeurism, but these pictures will somehow always remain fleeting apparitions, episodes glimpsed yet never fully comprehended. That’s at least

how they seduce me, the way this artist’s gaze is unwavering but peripheral, like an unseen presence just around the corner or an unspecific impression caught out

of the corner of your eye. We don’t need to see the action here for the drama is in the reaction, what pursues and haunts these protagonists as likely from within as

anywhere else.

 

While all the photographs that make up Marianna Rothen’s latest series “Shadows in Paradise” were shot in and around a house far up in the mountains of New York

State, their location is more liminal than actual. Like the house that acts as a moody and elusive character, in disrepair and nearly deserted before gradually being brought

back to life by the artist herself, these photographs chart a temporal topography of abandonment and occupation, close to the familiar but unmistakably outlying. It is

in this multiplicity, a whole shattered asunder like the fragments of personality rendered split by this woman made into many, veracity and disbelief shimmer in distorted

reflection, honesty caught in awkward shudder skulking on the threshold of delusion. Here is where to be there is to lose oneself, arrival an indefinite delay, waiting for

something that may never come because likely it has left already.

 

We know this place; it is the landscape of what has been lost and the broken ground upon which the forgotten grows like fertile weeds of memory, flowering pasts on

untended beds of history’s perennial haunting. It is not a destination but a sidetrack of indetermination, it is a borderline Rothen does not so much cross as trace like a

caregiver’s loving caress along the ridge of an accustomed scar. Marianna occupies these pictures like an unspoken kindness, the company and comfort we keep when

we are alone and frightened of this world, and wherever she may be here, in the frame or behind the camera, she is never quite grounded or solid but hovering, ethereal

and translucent, as much feeling as fact. This is really the nature of the fiction, the artist herself seeking out the self in others, making of her identity a disappearance and

a disclosure. How so often we see through windows, the internal and external framed by fragile portals, trapped like Catherine and storming through like Heathcliff in a

Catskills remake of Wuthering Heights. Yes, the science of photography has been able to take us outside of ourselves, but its art has been to lead us within, to proffer

deceptions as palliative truths. And in this sleight Rothen reveals herself like the ghosts of early Spirit Photography, the grainy shots of Yeti, Loch Ness and UFOs, and the

pixies of the Cottingley Fairies- projections of a need, reminders that we are never alone.

MARIANNA ROTHEN: SHADOWS IN PARADISE AT STEVEN KASHER

by Loring Knoblauch

Collector Daily, 3/27/17

In Marianna Rothen’s first photobook, Snow and Rose & other tales, she constructed a richly resonant dream world where empowered women were free to be themselves

in an environment entirely without men. Starting with an anxious woman in a wedding dress who ultimately flees, the fragments of visual narrative went on to capture various

women frolicking nude in the forest, playfully lounging in old houses, reading books, taking baths, having tea parties, and generally enjoying the loose openness of female

companionship. Shot and styled with a retro look and feel, and full of flouncy wigs, the images reveled in natural unselfconscious nudity and contagious smiling confidence.

Shadows in Paradise is Rothen’s second show and book, and its apt title lets us know that we will not be in for a continuation of the easy going, girlfriend sleepover good

times. In a series of six open-ended multi-image vignettes, Rothen builds up a subtly different mood, where uncertainty and insecurity reenter the psychological terrain and

introspection takes hold. Gone are the laughing eyes and the teasing prancing, replaced by head-in-hands despair, wide eyed fear, and weary leaning-on-the-doorframe

pensiveness.

Given that Rothen herself is a character in some of her stories, and the care with which costumes and female personas are created and employed, it’s hard not to make

connections back to Cindy Sherman’s work, particularly the Untitled Film Stills and their meticulously controlled cinematic moments. Other contemporary photographers,

like Alex Prager and Julia Fullerton-Batten, have also leveraged Sherman, putting females in stylized situations of peril and distress, sometimes with a healthy dose of film

noir cool.

Where Rothen has carved out something durably different is in the softness of her touch – while others have often opted for brassy bold color exaggeration in their

girl-on-the run stories, even when Rothen has pushed toward Hitchockian suspense and melodrama in her staging, her tones and shadows have muted those blasts of

high-intensity emotion, bringing them back toward more realistic roots. The wigs and setups never let us forget we’re inhabiting the artist’s imagination, but the decaying

house, the natural light, and the lost-in-thought gazes seduce us into temporarily suspending our disbelief.

While Rothen’s women still inhabit an all-female domain (with a handful of men interrupting from book jackets, posters, and framed pictures), there is much more implied

tension in these new pictures. Pregnant bellies, overturned baby carriages, stubbed out cigarettes, and empty whiskey bottles are the props that lead us to darker conclusions,

and a few brandished knives and handguns take the threatened atmosphere further. We voyeuristically watch as the scenarios start to unravel, peering through a broken

window pane or the folds of a curtain, or catching our heroines unaware in mirror reflections or through open doors.

Rothen’s management of body language and facial expression is a consistent superlative in her photographs. Crossed arms provide a small bit of protection from an unseen

force, feet up on the dining room table imply casual, don’t-care-anymore resignation, and a swayed look underneath a chandelier pulls with teetering imbalance. More complex

double mirror reflections and side-by-side diptychs (with blonde/brunette Betty and Veronica wigs) demonstrate that Rothen has been storyboarding these scenes out with

precision, alternately using black and white and color to heighten the particular mood of her pictures. A deer-in-the headlights held wineglass, a downcast look under a veil,

a sunglassed sway in a fur robe, each pose hits its stylistic mark with elegant exactness.

As a pair, Rothen’s two bodies of work provide a smart contrast of light and dark, where the realities and perils of life ultimately intrude on the idyllic freedoms of the original

setting. That she can so effortlessly move back and forth between the nuances of liberation and constraint is proof that she is much more than a young photographer playing

with dated wigs. Her new images introduce the friction of a richer spectrum of emotions, and that undercurrent of faded illusion gives the best of her photographs a sense of

uncertain vulnerability.

SITUATION AND SEDUCTION: MARIANNA ROTHEN’S SHADOWS IN PARADISE

by Lucy Soutter

Photoworks Annual 22, 2015

A glamorous blonde—let’s call her ‘Blondie’—is hiding out at a run-down old house. She is fully made up like a 60s French film star, but there is something off-kilter

about her appearance: in some pictures her hair looks like a doll’s wig. She’s got one outfit that she wears in various permutations: a slip, a cotton dress, a stripy

sweater and a leather trench coat. Blondie has time to kill. She sits around smoking, staring into the middle distance or looking out of a broken window. She

doesn’t turn on the TV. She holds a book in her lap but doesn’t read it. She picks up the phone but she doesn’t talk on it. She is waiting for something to happen,

a call or the arrival of a visitor. From the quality of her gaze, she seems kind of depressed, maybe even afraid. She sits on the front stoop with her head in her hands.

She lies on the brown shag carpet staring at the contents of a spilled ashtray. And she may well have reason to be afraid. In one frame she is prone, as if struck down,

outside the front door, with a battered pram overturned beside her. But she’s the one with the gun, held close to her chest as she smoulders behind a lace veil.

A final image closes in on her face, veiled by hair now rather than lace, and washed out by bright sunshine, as she looks right out at us.

This version of the story is my own. You might make something else of it, and Marianna Rothen’s photographs invite you to do so. For a photograph to read as a

compelling narrative it has to have something mysterious about it. If all were revealed, the image would read as a flat depiction, a showing rather than a telling.

The best narrative photographs offer a central ambiguity, while crucially inviting the viewer to connect with the characters or situations depicted. Rothen’s Blondie

is just the sort of seductive cipher to draw us into this process.

Rothen is unusual among narrative photographers in that she actively varies the narrative situation, the implied positions of the author, characters and viewer.

Some of the photographs in this series, like Risky Business, show us a scene as if viewed by an impersonal, external narrator. Others, like Rosebud and Ashtray,

invite us to perceive the story world through the eyes of the central character. She does not narrate per se, but serves to guide our looking with her looking. Still

other images, like Curtain, Backstabber and Still Life, are framed to place our gaze in a threatening relationship to the character. They imply a voyeuristic, predatory

role for us, the viewers. We could think of these as being narrated in the second person, as in ‘You are standing here’. In a fourth category of images, including

Donkey Skin and Cowboy 4, Blondie looks us straight in the eye, breaking the frame of the image to make contact with us. This is the closest she comes to serving

as a first person narrator rather than just a protagonist. This narrative instability produces a cinematic intensity and allows the series to unfold without feeling

predictable or illustrative.

A mini series called Shadows in Paradise, these 13 images make up a chapter in a larger body of work currently in progress. Like much of Rothen’s previous work

(in which Blondie occasionally appears), they take place in an all-women environment and present post-war Western norms of beauty in a playful mash-up. Rothen

is part of a generation of female photographers who belong as much to the internet as the gallery. Her New York gallery, Steven Kasher, recently included her in an

exhibition of nudes by photographers including Olivia Locher, Shae DeTar and Amanda Charchian—all active bloggers with tens of thousands of Instagram and Tumblr

followers. For this generation of artists, selfies, interviews, social media presence and viewer comments are paratexts informing the interpretation of their work. They

offer up aspects of their own subjectivity as part of a shared project: to recuperate the visual pleasures of the female form with a 21st century aesthetic.

Artists working in staged photography sometimes distance themselves from fashion by making their work larger and sharper, more banal or more spectacularly cinematic

than we usually expect fashion editorial to be. Rothen prints most of her images at relatively small scale, shifting fluidly between black and white and colour, and mixing

sharp images with atmospherically blurred ones, thus allowing her work to overlap with the visual tropes of fashion. Parallel to the way song lyrics can lack sense in

terms of grammar and reference, but still pull on the emotions when paired with melody, the best fashion images create affect from elements that do not add up on their

own. A bra strap or a flutter of false eyelashes may produce a flash of desire, or a vivid sensory projection of what it feels like to be in that scene, in that skin. A former

model herself, Rothen has an insider’s knowledge of how images can generate sensation, projection and identification.

Rothen often includes books in her photographs. Their titles provide atmospheric epigraphs for the images, and sometimes add layers of reference. Shadows in Paradise

refers to the title of a novel by Erich Maria Remarque (best known for All Quiet on the Western Front). Published after the author’s death, the novel explores the lives of

European émigrés after the World War II. Like Remarque himself, the German protagonist has a beautiful Russian girlfriend, a former model, with whom he pines for a

pre-war Europe to which they can never return. The photographs in Rothen’s series have some of the nostalgic melancholy of the novel, but are set closer to the book’s

1972 publication date than its late 1940s setting. The fractured viewpoint of the photographs echoes the inconsistencies of the novel, which some critics consider to be

an unfinished draft. In the first image of the series, a copy of the novel lies across Blondie’s lap, emphasising the jacket photograph of Remarque himself. A figure of high

romance, Remarque had affairs with Hollywood legends including Hedy Lamarr, Dolores del Rio, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. Although Rothen’s photographs are

not an illustration of his text, they deepen in relation to his brooding presence.

Does it matter who the model is for Blondie? Would it shift the way we perceive the story if she were someone significant, even the artist herself? In the set of Cowboy

images with Blondie wearing the veil, the viewer is presented with a visage all the more alluring for being partially obscured. In these images, Blondie is simultaneously

herself as a character and the object of the photographer’s—and our—gaze. Shifting the narrative situation from picture to picture, Rothen creates a layered masquerade.

Actress, model and protagonist, Blondie is also voyeur, predator and prey.