New York

Barbara Kruger

New Museum

The problem with mounting a retrospective of Barbara Kruger’s art is that “art” gets misleadingly emphasized. That artist is now just one of several occupations notched on Kruger’s résumé—graphic designer and media critic are among the others—is a fact MOCA has bravely tried to own up to, even though doing so has led to some pretty absurd curatorial moves. For example, standing in one pristine gallery is a Plexiglas vitrine safeguarding a tastefully arrayed sampling of Kruger-designed coffee mugs, notepads, and umbrellas, the very same merchandise stocked in bulk and available for purchase in the museum’s gift shop downstairs.

Threaded together by a few product-ID traits (the red-and-black color scheme and Futura-bold typeface), Kruger’s output eagerly migrates across media, discourses, and sites, and a similar shape-shifting has come to characterize the voice it projects as well. In the early ’80s, when she first attracted widespread acclaim, it was typical for critics to describe her photo captions about sexual politics as expressive of a singular feminist consciousness—namely, Kruger’s own. But as her enterprise has diversified, so have her messages grown more chameleon. More sorts of senders and receivers populate the fragmented and dysfunctional socialscape her work increasingly portrays: There are power brokers and bargain shoppers, trendsetters and true believers, and they speak in tones that hopscotch the emotional spectrum, at times militant or sadistic, at others giddy, bitter, or insecure. To walk through this show assuming that in every piece Kruger herself simply lectures her audience is a mistake; what she does is mediate, cranking the volume on various often unspoken transactions that shape, subjugate, and splinter personal and public behavior.

Kruger herself has explained her work in terms of critique, one that finds its ally in words and its target in pictures; her aim, she says, is to “interrupt the stunned silences of the image with the uncouth impertinences and uncool embarrassments of language.” The idea that visual imagery is inherently pernicious is played up not only by the bygone McCarthy-era look of most of her black-and-white photos, but also by their often violent subject matter, a violence aestheticized through noir lighting or other abstracting effects. Against the tendency of images to objectify and distance, to freeze organic movement and naturalize social constructions, Kruger poses the temporality of speech, the specificity of direct address, and the contestable, shifting assignments of pronouns like “we” and “you.” Her branding-iron text forces images to verbally admit their miscellaneous agendas (“you are a captive audience”) and likewise makes viewers openly confess their miscellaneous resentments (“you kill time”). Kruger’s impulse seems both democratic and psychoanalytic, the goal to have us talk through our problems, to turn our mediated social exchange into something of a cross between a town-hall meeting and a very big encounter session.

But to the extent that Kruger does succeed in bringing to the audible surface deep-seated hostilities and desires, the results are not exactly uplifting. Voice has increasingly attained the upper hand in her work, but only to erupt into a veritable war of words, especially in the large-scale installations she’s produced over the last ten years. Curator Ann Goldstein has included three such installations in the show, the most recent being Power Pleasure Desire Disgust, 1997. Here text surpasses the limitations of wall and floor space; using an intricate system of automatically advancing slide projectors, Kruger flashes white-lettered diatribes onto nearly every surface of an entirely blackened room, thus dissolving architectural solidity into the huffing syncopations of a shouting match. The only imagery included is itself in motion: Three large-scale video close-ups of actors line the far wall, each talking head rendering a personalized account of the uphill battle to express personality within a society bound by alienated exchange. This is the closest Kruger gets to suggesting the intimacy of face-to-face dialogue, but the suggestion remains frustrated by the rapid-fire channel surfing of the different video images and projected texts, their relentless turnover reducing all the gut-wrenching particularities of their verbal testimony down to a monotonous “listen to me” command characteristic of media as a whole. Rather than the drama of an intersubjective encounter, with its metaphoric play of projection and investment, the viewer instead feels jacked into a vast telecommunications switchboard, with its ticker-tape metonymy of message transmission and registration, its endless extending of superficial, effervescent contacts.

That speech seems less an agent of liberation in these more recent works may indicate a change not just in Kruger but in the times more generally. During the Reaganite ’80s, when media images proved such effective conduits of power and authority, it was a defiant act to disturb the silent pacts struck between senders and receivers; today, however, despite (or because of) all the information circulating through the culture, disconnection reigns as a primary social fact. Kruger doesn’t countermand so much as amplify this state of affairs, rendering a grim realist portrait of our mediated intercourse that mixes keen insight with manic, distorting caricature (qualities that liken such work to a Lenny Bruce monologue and that keep it provocative rather than merely assaulting). It’s not that Kruger is without a hopeful side, only that her reservations are grave indeed. As a 1991 poster of hers declares, “Empathy can change the world,” to which a gallery work from 1984 responds, “Buy me, I’ll change your life.”

“Barbara Kruger” travels to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July 13–October 22.

Lane Relyea lives in Los Angeles and teaches at CalArts, Valencia.