New York

Barbara Kruger

Annina Nosei Gallery

Barbara Kruger showed 15 new works here. In most of them she continued to combine greatly enlarged found photographs and verbal messages, often feminist in context, designed in a variety of typefaces. Some look pasted together, like ransom notes. “We are your elaborate holes,” is the statement angled across a photograph of a golf ball just passing the cup. “Promise us anything but give us nothing,” is the message over a huge photograph of what may be crumpled foil gift-wrapping. In Roy Toy, 1986, the phrase “Make my day” accompanies the image of a cheetah tearing raw flesh; a small photograph of lawyer Roy Cohn is incorporated. The title of this piece is an allusion to the phrase “boy toy” lately associated with the pop singer Madonna, just as the central message is an allusion to a well-known phrase from the Clint Eastwood movie Sudden Impact (1983). This image of violent retribution for sexist chatter is powerful in its directness, though at the cost of sacrificing subtlety and complexity. There is in fact a stridency to some of Kruger’s new work that goes beyond the often confrontational tone of her earlier works, perhaps in a bid to induce a now familiar strategy to remain affective.

Some of these works involve photographic images and text that shift as one moves in relation to them, a genre popularized in drugstore icons of Jesus and which Kruger imported into the high-art realm several years ago. As one walks by one of these works the foreground image fades and a background image comes up, similar in effect to a cinematic lap dissolve. This means of juxtaposing two images, or a message and an image, forces the viewer to move back and forth to unearth the hidden element, suggesting our need to drive into the open the culture industry’s hidden or subliminal messages. Kruger’s use of color is expanding like the variety of her means of photographic reproduction. In addition to the red-and- black and other two-color photographs seen before, this show included one piece using a four-color printing process, an image of a tray of pastries over which the words “Give me all you’ve got” are printed in pink.

Within this show of expanding but still more or less expected work one new element did appear: Kruger’s first work that does not involve a pictorial image but is purely verbal (untitled, 1986). A series of admiring clichés spoken by a woman to a man—“What big muscles you have!,” “My hero, my daddy, my ayatollah . . . ”—this work embodies a kind of double projection: the images that women project upon men in response to a sense that men, by their own projections, wish to be assigned these artificial roles. Kruger’s text here displays a quiet self-assurance, and a degree of focus and clarity that may arise, however unexpectedly, from its freedom from any image other than the lettering of the text itself.

This piece provides a new vantage point from which to regard Kruger’s work; specifically, it raises the question of what the image actually does in most of her work. A critical tradition has developed that defines the relationship between her texts and her found images as a translation of the ideas of certain thinkers, especially Jacques Lacan, into artistic form. Clearly some of Kruger’s works do satisfy this interpretation, though they may not actually need it; however, many of them do not, and in these cases little real analysis of the relationship of word to image has been done. In fact, the works that do fit the Lacanian formula have tended to distract attention from those—possibly the greater number—that do not. Kruger’s decision to forego the pictorial image in this case hints at a desire to reassess her own position vis-à-vis the work and to achieve, perhaps, a new quality of relationship between image and text, thus freeing her work from restrictive formulae and restoring a fresh critical gaze to it.

Thomas McEvilley