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Artist and Filmmaker Gretchen Bender Dies at 53

I learned over the holidays that artist Gretchen Bender, whose intelligent, visually seductive work crossed lines between visual art and film, sculpture and video, died in New York on Sunday, December 18 of cancer. She was 53.

Bender, who, early in her career exhibited at the East Village Nature Morte Gallery and later Metro Pictures, created conceptually concise and elegant work that often critiqued mainstream media and the power imbalances contained within its representations. And while many artists at this time were working with appropriation and engaging in similar sorts of critique, Bender’s work always cunningly embodied within itself a kernel of that which she was attacking. There was a cold beauty to much of her work, and its allure to the viewer was very much a part of its oppositional strategy. “If Darth Vader made art, it might look like this,” wrote New York Times critic Roberta Smith of one Bender exhibition in 1986.

Bender worked extensively in film, video and theater, creating backdrops for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane dance company and two large-scale multimedia exhibitions, Dumping Core and Total Recall, the latter of which I produced for The Kitchen when I was Programming Director there in the late ’80s. The pieces used multiple video monitors and, in the case of Total Recall, multiple film screens against loud electronic rock scores to confront viewers with an intense barrages of imagery, creating visually thrilling experiences out of sometimes troubling source material. This work lead to her working in music video (she directed videos for Babes in Toyland, among others, and edited clips by Robert Longo for REM, New Order and Megadeth), and she also edited opening credit material for America’s Most Wanted.

Said Bender in a 1991 interview with Peter Doreshenko, “Given material that is violent, racist, and sexist, I try to make it a little less violent, less racist, and less sexist. I’m still involved in a kind of questionable propaganda, but one small step makes a difference. At first, I turned down that work because of all the complications and all the incredible decisions you have to make about what you’re promoting. But I decided to do it because I had a way to do what I considered socially positive propaganda.”

I remember Bender as smart, charming and intellectually inquisitive, someone who from the beginning had her finger on the complex issues related to artmaking in a media-saturated world. As she said in an interview with artist Cindy Sherman, “The only constant to the style you develop is the necessity to change it. Style gets absorbed really fast by the culture, basically by absorbing the formal elements or the structure and then subverting the content…It’s constantly having to accept the fact that your work will lose its strength…Accepting the fact that your work is going to become neutralized — faster than you ever dreamed…I don’t think the media is something that listens in the way we’re talking about. I think of the media as a cannibalistic river. A flow or a current that absorbs everything. It’s not “about.” There is no consciousness or mind. It’s about absorbing and converting…”

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