New York

Barbara Kruger

Barbara Kruger has always insisted on the presence of the body in her work, not merely as a representational element but as a critical wedge in the edifice of power. Refusing the putatively transcendental subjects and objects of traditional art and their often hidebound histories, she cuts directly to the ravages of sexual politics and patriarchal authority. Nameless linguistic shifters—the persistent “you’s” and “we’s” of her most characteristic work—nonetheless point directly to arenas of historical and material conflict. The accusatory we is feminine; the accused you, masculine.

In her most recent work, however, Kruger relies less on the pronominal agon, and in this show the results are decidedly mixed. On the one hand, she offers snide one-liners: Untitled (Turned Trick) (all works 1988) pairs a picture of a man slicing a fat sausage with the words “Turned Trick.” But beyond these negligible works, Kruger maps a space of complex and ambivalent psychodramas, as in “Heart” (Do I have to give up me to be loved by you?), one of the few works featured here that retains pronominal references. An enormous, wall-sized picture of a split-open human heart is bisected by a thin line of white text, reading “Do I have to give up me to be loved by you?” The word “me” is situated dead center, at the heart of “Heart;” the minute text, which is rather hard to read amid the carnage of this ventricular landscape, constitutes a muffled yet whining plaint, a moan of interpersonal neurosis. Playing on the anatomical and sentimental meanings of “heart,” Kruger violently destabilizes the utterance, teasing us with graphic metaphors for what becomes of hearts sacrificed to love. The use of “I” and “you” compels us as readers of Kruger’s text to construct a fictional scenario, to embody the voice that addresses and the persona addressed. The main problem of this piece lies in its alliance of an understated text (small print recording pathetic emotion) and a grossly overstated image, one that drastically inflects or curtails our fictive imagining.

In Untitled (You’re mine and we belong together), Kruger dispenses with the image complement entirely; her text on aluminum continues an exploration of the queasy psychic terrain adumbrated in Heart. The artist couples the parenthetically enclosed words from the title (placed on separate, widely spaced plaques) with a medical description of the physiology of the mouth. She frames, quite literally, the seemingly neutral text with her own distillation of a characteristically male idea of love as possession, or woman as chattel, rupturing the otherwise seamless imperturbability of medical discourse. Contextual dislocation lends odd psychosocial connotations to phrases such as “the vestibule of the mouth,” suggesting uncertain junctures between the threshold and the hearth, inside and outside, public and private. “You” and “we” no longer define the oppositional dialectics of masculine and feminine, but instead foreshadow a no less conflicted but more involuted interpersonal dynamic.

David Rimanelli