New York

Barbara Kruger

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

Barbara Kruger’s art has been confrontational at least since her landmark works of the 1980s, in which found photographs and sharp phrases addressed viewers directly, especially those viewers who thought the word you meant them. And it seemed that many did, for Kruger became a flash point, one of the artists old-school critics had in mind when they complained about the hectoring, lecturing turn they felt that art was taking. But Kruger was always far smarter and subtler than that critique claimed, and later, when she moved into video installations—such as The Globe Shrinks, 2010, the single piece in this show—her work grew more ambitious still. Kruger now juggles images and text within whole environments, in which the images move and the text is heard as well as read. She is as in-your-face as ever, maybe more so: Since The Globe Shrinks is a four-wall projection, its images bouncing around the room in shifting configurations and relationships, it both makes you run to keep up and leaves you no refuge. The installation can’t be seen from a single vantage point, so only through repeated viewings can one claim to have seen the whole thing.

The Globe Shrinks comprises a set of scenes or skits. One visually tense segment takes two cars down a winding California canyon, the first driver steering erratically because she’s talking on her cell phone, the second abusively angry as he tries to pass her; the story jumps from wall to wall, the camera here in one car, there in the other. A more abstract episode—shot as if the camera were tumbling across the floor of a service corridor in some office or hotel—eventually seems readable as a fight or assault, cheered on by laughing bystanders. At the opposite pole of near stillness, a woman gazes unblinkingly into the wind from a powerful fan, seen on the facing wall. In a repeated format, stand-up comics tell well-trodden jokes, and between scenes, two-word written orders flash by: BELIEVE IT, DOUBT IT, LOVE IT, SHOVE IT. Text appears intermittently elsewhere, too, subtitling or commenting on the speech we hear, or constituting a scene in itself.

Friction or abrasion, whether between individuals or groups, is constant throughout, as though Kruger were saying that as “the globe shrinks,” coexistence is increasingly a strain. Religious intolerance, social stereotyping, simple impatience—it’s as if we were all that woman facing into that fan. If the piece is experientially tough in its very form, this subtext makes it more so, and on this ground alone, Kruger’s reflexive critics may find ways to write it off. But the work is not reducible to a banal message. In fact it has more to do with trying to escape banality—with the attempt to think and see freshly, only to find patterns and preconditions in our thoughts and perceptions. When a man tells an intimate, “I just want to tell you how much you mean to me; I can be myself with you . . . ,” his words seem inadequate, even untrustworthy—a stab at sincerity packed with formulaic thought. Elsewhere, with an artist smugly claiming to be “working for the good,” the script gets quick laughs as a satire on artists’ pretensions, except that the various interests this man claims—in “kindness and brutality,” in the “kind of funny and predictable” quality of sentiment, in work that is “about exploitation” rather than exploitative itself—might all be mentioned in a review of The Globe Shrinks.

In this way, Kruger leaves no uncompromised place to stand, no position to be comfortably adopted, even her own. If all she did were attack the formulaic, the brutal, and the exploitative, the work might be worthy but homiletic. But if we think we can take refuge in the opposites of those qualities—the sincere, the intimate, the good, the kind—how does that goal function? How are those constructs encoded? Though seeming to address an immediate social context, The Globe Shrinks stands on a far more philosophical plane.

David Frankel