New York

Barbara Kruger

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

Not for the first time, Barbara Kruger deals in her latest work with pressure, animosity, stress. Twelve, 2004, is a video installation in which images of the individuals in a dozen successive friend and family groups sitting around tables are projected on the gallery’s four walls. The work is structured as if Kruger had set four cameras in the middle of the table, each facing one side; the result is that on each wall we see one person, close and way over life-size, who faces us while talking or listening to the people on the space’s other walls. I say talking or listening, but it would be truer to say they quarrel or grit their teeth: If these conversations boast a moment of agreement or understanding, affection or trust, I missed it. Under the talking heads, a text crawl may fill in the characters’ scabrous thoughts. Twelve joins a long and honorable line of unsentimental worldviews. Red in tooth and claw . . . Nasty, brutish, and short . . . The quality of life implied here may bring such phrases to mind.

Call Kruger the anti-Matisse: This art is not your father’s comfortable armchair. But why should it be? Kruger’s adversaries often point to the discomfort she offers them as if that were her work’s flaw. In one way just camouflaged ideology, attacks on her projects can also be oddly personal; the critics are confronted and hit back. Surely they don’t think art should deal only with the bonheur de vivre. I am also impatient with the middlebrow notion, floated every other week in the film pages of the New Yorker, that art can deal with bad situations only when it’s ennobling and cathartic—when it offers a resolution. The effort of facing our inner and outer circumstances should not be saddled with this moralistic burden; it is as if the critic were telling the artist, You can ask the question, but only when we already know the answer.

The issue is how persuasive one finds Kruger’s vision, and I am among those almost always rewarded by it, even if it may also leave me feeling like I’ve been slapped. There is too much knowledge here to shrug away. To say that life is nasty and short is a generalization; Kruger moors it in specifics: the children adding their own salt to the wounds of their parents’ bickering; the four young guys in the film biz arguing over whether “we really need a movie about the poisoning of the water supply”; the high school royalty ostracizing another girl who’s sitting right there at the table. Moving between coffee shop and family dining room, Kruger gives us a panoramic view of our unease. Often in Twelve we hear ideas under the talk’s surface like muscles under skin: Kruger’s characters are always debating theories and issues that they don’t recognize as such, issues of consumerism, the media, domestic violence, aesthetics, objectification, dehumanization—intellectual and social problems that to them are just their lives. Some slightly stiff acting bears out our sense of these people as awkward, injured containers for the forces of their day. Add a tense pace, crackling language, occasional sonic devices to surprise, and we still haven’t reached the real coup, the staging: Entering the space, we are invisible parties to a conversation among larger-than-life actors, who talk through us to each other as if we weren’t there. Metaphoric but more than that, the device literalizes the underlying experience of the relational problems Kruger is addressing. No wonder she’s such a target.

David Frankel