New York

Barbara Kruger

Annina Nosei Gallery

The application of a “semiotic” analysis to the relationship between word and photographic image was intrinsic to the vocabulary of much American and European art of the ’70s. While some artists, like John Baldessari, played off the codes of the media to create a “slippage” of the image’s meaning, others, like Hans Haacke or Victor Burgin, drew on the practices of orthodox photography, advertising, and the bureaucratic agencies. The work brought to the surface the manipulative power of these usages of representation; it remained for feminist discourse to draw the construction of subjectivity in representation into the nexus of sociopolitical power relations.

If Barbara Kruger’s work comes late to these issues, the question to be dealt with is the way it inhabits a territory already mapped out. If the general philosophy remains the same, we need to look at the way it is used and the content of its presentation—itself a signifying structure with its own history. Kruger’s design—bold typefaces dynamically overlying the image—is situated in a graphic tradition whose roots, again like many of the strategies of the ’70s, are in Russian Productivism. Her use of a red frame in concert with the austerity of the black and white photograph reinforces this attribution, establishing the work’s “look” within a socialist propaganda tradition. Where the work begins to take on its specific cultural meaning is in the directness with which it plays off cultural codes, its scale and mode of address utilizing the economically privileged, high-tech style of the American corporate image. We are immediately confronted, therefore, with an ideological contradiction: the signs of the left, and those of capitalist propaganda and technology. Rather than enter into a dialogical relation, the two become compressed into a rhetoric of power.

Kruger’s work demonstrates power relations primarily in terms of gender divisions of labor. For feminism, however, the photograph as an instrument of resistance or sedition is problematic. Its formal limitations are such that there is no space in which to reinvent a photographic “text”—one can only play off its already conventionalized codes. Its appropriative and voyeuristic nature renders it intrinsically coded in the language of the authoritarian other. Surely, to pose the photograph as the only language through which it is possible to speak is already to capitulate to its power, to disfranchise and immobilize one’s own voice, even if one claims to be working parodically.

Kruger attempts to circumvent this problem by imposing textual inscriptions onto images whose contents are themselves sufficiently indeterminable to suggest several readings. Her choices of camera angle, cropping, and framing result in images that have more in common with film close-up and montage than with the advertising poster to which the work’s formal presentation addresses itself. While Kruger in fact often draws from movie sources, most of her images have the estranged look of the film still. Where part-objects or part-bodies appear, the artist adroitly maneuvers around the fetishization typical of orthodox photography—for instance, she screens a woman’s face with a granular effect. Nevertheless, the images are specific enough to be located in those postwar decades when it was still possible for the West to believe innocently in the American Dream, when consumerism really took off, and when the prevailing domestic propaganda was directed toward encouraging women to return to the home. While it is important to remember that these inscriptions are central to many of the films and photographs of that period, the danger in using such images now is that they too readily become an appeal to nostalgia which estheticizes the work, reducing its critical edge.

The artist’s texts are essential to direct our reading of the images and to make ironic their contents. Considerable attention is paid to the addressee of the messages and, through a judicious use of pronouns, to the part played by viewer identification. While ambiguity enlivens the work, a dominant reading too often grounds it in didacticism. In the images inscribed “Our time is your money” and “You are the cost of living,” for example, the male viewer is directly addressed by the text, while the female viewer is encouraged to identify with the depicted women as the mute victims of capitalism; likewise, an image of an exploding home is a female sign, while the “you” of its text, “Your money talks,” is the male. If some of this work remains trapped in the divisive feminist opposition of (male) power and exploitation and (female) exploited labor, others draw attention to the problem of seeing and knowing (a multiple image of hands moving over a page of braille, for example, is inscribed “What you see is what you get”); these become less combatively gender-oriented. This last work also loses some of the accusatory and authoritarian tone of the artist’s authorial voice, which in some works, in conjunction with their corporate look, sounds too close to paternalistic rhetoric.

Kruger’s Duchampian punning, often poetic, sometimes knowingly banal, occasionally comes dangerously close to self-parody, as in the movie-still image in which we are looking at two male characters and the muzzle of a revolver. The coincidence of the plane of the depicted bullet-shattered glass with that of the glass of the picture transfers the “me” of “Money can’t buy me” from an anonymous voice to the object itself. When this happens, one stumbles over the question of whether an art object designed and packaged as a commodity can speak with more than a hollow voice on the persuasive power of consumer ideology.

Jean Fisher