Gallery  July 10, 2024  Carlota Gamboa

Ahead of Her Time: Gretchen Bender’s Take On Media Critique

© 2024 Estate of Gretchen Bender, Courtesy Sprüth Magers, Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

Gretchen Bender, Gremlins, 1984. Four dye-sublimation prints mounted on Dibond, top right photograph by John Hoagland: Two young girls found alongside the highway to Comalapa Airport, April 1980. 130.8 x 174 cm | 51 1/2 x 68 1/2 inches

Whether the outsourcing of an analog lifestyle came swiftly, or took its sweet time, it’d be difficult to argue against our dependency on technology that we collectively face today. By way of the screen’s ever-present conveniences— paired with their data-driven subliminal messages— the critique of overexposure to blue light has also become somewhat mainstream. 

The age-old idea that television rots one’s brain, or that media has desensitized entire communities toward violence, becomes endlessly more messy when we’re carrying around the source of those arguments in our hands, bags, and pockets.

© 2024 Estate of Gretchen Bender, Courtesy Sprüth Magers, Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

Gretchen Bender, Ghostbusters, 1984. Two dye-sublimation prints 154 x 142.9 cm | 60 5/8 x 56 1/4 inches

Art has often been instrumental in reflecting the conditions of our society back to us, in elucidating the sometimes uglier aspects of what we’ve come to find mundane. Artist and activist Gretchen Bender and her large-scale “electronic theater” installations were seminal in the practice of re-contextualizing media in order to expose it. 

The retrospective exhibition, Perversion of the Visual, on view at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles until August 10th, pays homage to the immersive pastiche of Bender’s making. 

After moving to New York in 1978, Bender became involved with the contemporary movement of the “Pictures Generation,” which included Barbara Kruger, Robert Longo, and Cindy Sherman. Originally working with screen printing, Bender soon began using abstracted computer graphics in her work, in addition to stills from network television.

© 2024 Estate of Gretchen Bender, Courtesy Sprüth Magers, Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

Gretchen Bender, Dumping Core, 1984. Four-channel video, color and sound on thirteen monitors 15:21 min

By the mid-80s, Bender had taught herself how to edit and splice videos together, moving into uniquely specialized territory in comparison to other artists of the decade. In an article from Interview Magazine, Bender was even quoted saying, “artists should be spending their money on VCRs instead of paint and canvas.” 

Perversion of the Visual explores her trajectory and evolution as a media artist. One of the earlier works featured, a 1984 piece entitled Dumping Core, uses 13 television screens to alternate redundant images of liminal graphics. The televisions, seemingly arranged to look like an adaptation of the sales-window in an electronic appliance store, bring the viewer through waiting-room-like moving images.

A long and desolate stretch of road, flowers like those found in Nintendo games, and floating patterns reminiscent of a mid-2000’s Mac screensaver all work to create a slight disconnect between the work and the viewer. 

© 2024 Estate of Gretchen Bender, Courtesy Sprüth Magers, Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

Gretchen Bender, Untitled (Daydream Nation), 1989. Twelve dye-sublimation prints mounted to armature 101.6 x 304.8 x 153.7 cm | 40 x 120 x 60 1/2 inches

There is an ominous reminder that Bender’s work is as much, if not more, politically-minded as it is aesthetic. It asks the viewer to interact with one’s own relationship to visual information and question what is being absorbed, and why. What is the image invoking and how does it feel to face the refusal of a singular meaning?

While working on Dumping Core, Bender also began a project which included work from Susan Meiselas’ collection El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers. The disturbing photos captured realities present in the US-backed Salvadoran Civil War happening at the time. 

© 2024 Estate of Gretchen Bender, Courtesy Sprüth Magers, Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

Gretchen Bender, Dumping Core, 1984. Four-channel video, color and sound on thirteen monitors 15:21 min

Bender subverted popular media’s neglect by using pieces of horrific photographs in her piece Gremlins (1984). The work was exhibited in New York City’s 1984 multi-venue campaign, Artist’s Call Against US Intervention in Central America.

She also exhibited in the 1989 Whitney show, "Image World: Art and Media Culture," alongside Jeff Koons, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and David Salle, while another one of her pieces, a 42-foot-long work entitled People in Pain (1988), went on view at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Many of her multimedia installations toured internationally, and one— Wild Dead (1984)— was even shown at the New York City dance club, Danceteria. Sadly, in 2004, at the age of 53, Bender passed away. 

About the Author

Carlota Gamboa

Carlota Gamboa is an art writer based in Los Angeles.

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