New York

Barbara Kruger, Don Gummer and Laurie Anderson

Artists Space

The tendency toward a highly decorative art is further evinced by Barbara Kruger’s ornate fabric circles shown at Artists Space. Her five large circles are haloed by borders of garishly colored synthetic fluff. Inside, patches of striped, checked, quilted, and shimmering fabric vie with impasto acrylic polka dots, stripes of brightly colored yarn, thick oozes of paint and nodules covered in sparkling silver netting—altogether an incredibly busy surface dazzle. The choice of cheap, gaudy materials arranged in psychedelic patterns, glittering kitsch, relates these works to the pop culture. Once again it is only the materials that are “new.” These are superimposed on a framework reminiscent of Op art in its design emphasis and its overall effect of a glut of visual information.

In striking contrast, Don Gummer’s piece induces a mood of contemplative inquiry in its stoical sparseness. One is first confronted by two tables, simply fabricated out of raw wood slats and painted gray tops and standing slightly away from the starkly lit wall. A sheet of off-white rag paper is pinned over the table on one’s right. From this setting, one progresses to an enclosed L-shaped space into which one looks through a large windowlike opening. The softer light encourages one to stop here and deliberate. On the right is the same table as before, but on the left one can see only a sheet of paper. Since the space is cut off from one’s view, one cannot see whether there is a table beneath the paper as before. Gummer’s work raises questions about how one actually sees, about how one’s memory of previous experiences enters into perception. When one looks at the enclosed space, one is conscious of one’s previous encounter with the tables and one transfers that knowledge to the new situation. Gummer deliberately prevents one from verifying one’s expectation by choosing a window opening rather than a door to discourage one from actually entering the space. One is left with the question of whether the second table is actually present in physical space or whether it is only virtually there due to the preconditioning of one’s perception—and is one interpretation truer than the other?

Gummer’s investigation between the perceived and the physical reality is extended by slight variations in the original two tables. While at first glance the tables seem identical, except for their bases, on closer examination the left table seems slightly smaller, its legs somewhat thinner—quantitative differences which one could measure but which, in this case, only exist for one once one perceives them. Yet another detail—the slightly off-center placement of the paper—confounds one’s expectation of symmetry, and indicates how prior experiences condition one’s perception of new situations. This idea of mental preconditioning can be applied to the gallery situation in general where one arrives with certain preformed notions about art which determine how one perceives new works. The success of Gummer’s work is contingent upon one’s inability to read it as an art object. Although his ideas can be traced to certain sculpture of the ’60s, in particular to Robert Morris’ involvement with the perceptual experience, Gummer eschews the object status of these works. The choice of a structure which immediately signifies “table” to the viewer prevents any speculation on abstract form or similar reading of the work as art object. Instead one is forced to concentrate on the situation and one’s awareness of it. The physicality of things is subsidiary to the perceptual experience.

While Gummer uses purely visual means to ask questions about perception, Laurie Anderson depends heavily on language in her solipsistic inquiries into the nature of perception. Her work entitled Around the Orange/A-round the Orange—A Study in Blind Belief consists of a sequence of handwritten statements with photographs or Xerox reproductions, as well as a few objects, mounted on posterboard. The visual information, however, only illustrates the text and for the most part seems unnecessary—a mere device to give the gallery goer something to look at. The text itself investigates the relationship between what one sees and what one believes through a series of self-involved musings. There is no coherent development of the thought, nor is the thinking particularly profound, being highly derivative. Throughout the various reflections, Anderson reiterates the idea that all knowledge is founded in one’s self, that the only reality is what one believes—and perhaps that, too, is an illusion. For example, in circular memory link she wonders how she knows an orange is round and finds that her perception of its shape results from a mental combining of memories of different views of the orange, which process enables her to believe that it is round. Anderson’s subsequent experiment with recollecting her breakfast table pinpoints the blindness of belief by showing that memory can be faulty; it was only by trusting her memory that she knew the orange was round. Taken to its extreme this is the question “do you really believe or do you only think you believe?” which ends her piece.

Generally, though, the work seems like random pages from a notebook—personal speculations jotted down. The orange is merely a device for linking these thoughts together—the choice seems arbitrary. My main argument with this and other work by Anderson is with the format. Her ideas seem to be developed completely in terms of language—there is no necessity to mimic them in visual terms. The visual realization should add to the ideas or clarify them in some way. Instead, the visual elements in Anderson’s works are merely verbatim translations of linguistic ideas which were sufficient on their own.

Susan Heinemann