New York

Barbara Kruger

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

The gallery show is usually an occasion to display the year’s latest products, the newest, hottest items off the assembly line of an individual artist’s practice. However, in this exhibition Barbara Kruger eschewed the convention of showing only recent work, preferring to arrange a selection of works from 1981 to the present. The central characteristic of her work–the photograph cropped, enlarged, and juxtaposed with strident verbal statements or phrases–was evident in several forms, ranging from her now “classic” red-framed black-and-white works to variations using lenticular screens, color photographs, and (in a current series) images silkscreened on vinyl. But if such a selection smacks of the retrospective, the term is inappropriate, for who more than Kruger has questioned the relations entertained in specularity and the coherent, comprehensive overview the word “retrospective” implies? Instead, Kruger seemed to use this occasion to comment on the scope and modalities of power.

In recent years Kruger has extended her discussion on the positioning of the feminine body within patriarchy to address the more general positioning of the social body within that economy, within its ideological systems, and (most pointedly) within the market that provides its dominant feature. Her ability is to render a market situation whose potency derives from its all-pervasiveness. Images of women are consumed, and so is art, which announces itself as another marketable commodity–Kruger’s target in When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook, 1985. (All of the works are untitled but are referred to here by their verbal mottoes.) Her works treat social and economic manipulation, showing them to operate within the same system: her true subject, then, is the circulation and consumption of signs, and the subjection that this process implies. Kruger’s particular brand of irony is directed against our state of receivership, in which we consume the codes dictated by anonymous voices of power. This is as apparent in a work from 1982, where the statement We have received orders not to move overlays an image of an immobile woman’s body, pinned against a wall, as it is in What me worry?, 1987, in which lines of directives taken from a self-help book compose an impenetrable wall of words. Her mission is to rupture such impassivity, to disturb our polite submission to social norms.

Kruger’s principal instrument is the stereotype, the ideological cliché which, as Norman Bryson has remarked, “knows only one mode of address: exhortation.” In Kruger’s art the stereotype wears multiple guises, appearing as phrase, as situation (You make history when you do business, 1981), as gesture (the handshake in the new Admit nothing / Blame everyone / Be bitter, 1987), or as a continuum of social commands (the run-on lines in What me worry?). Often she invokes the stereotype in its most insinuating form, as a paradigm of identity that is socially inscribed rather than “chosen.” This notion of identity is shifted through different registers: her consumerist version of Descartes’ famous proposition (I shop, therefore I am, 1987); a feminist retort to the imposition of masculine terms (You thrive on mistaken identity, 1981); a 1987 color photograph (Why you are who you are) in which a pencil held in a woman’s hand is seen underlining a dictionary definition. This is power in its endless peregrinations, as it places, positions, imposes.

Jean Baudrillard, in an essay in the show’s catalogue, points out the “problematical presence” of the interlocuter of these images. “There is no one at the end of the sign,” he remarks–no one, no person, but rather an impersonal diffusion of interests. Thus, if these works frame “a feminine address to the masculine,” it is not to the masculine per se but to its extensive avatars–power, money, and the dispersed reticulations that underwrite patriarchy, guaranteeing its hold.

This exhibition also marked Kruger’s switch to a new gallery affiliation. She cannot be unaware that the move to a gallery known for its prominent role within the market sharpens the tensions between her critical stance and her status as a successful and marketable artist. Her work, however, demonstrates the impossibility of exteriority: everything is simultaneously in, of, and about the market. Similarly, she countered the gallery tendency toward gigantism by selecting works of heterogeneous sizes. Her exhibition shaped a lesson on the modalities of power, showing that it is not a matter of size but of scale, not of message but of the tactics by which subjection is exercised.

Kate Linker