London

Barbara Kruger: Early Works at Skarstedt Gallery

It’s a funny thing to be able to go back and reconsider an artist’s early works after thirty years, partly because the time capsule of memory remembers the work in the context in which it was made. Viewing the work again in the present reflects the context of that prior time as it’s understood now. The aggressively fast-paced 1980s are faster in memory than they actually were. The once-fleeting Warholian milestone of fifteen minutes can now be measured in terms of nearly 8 millions tweets. So it would seem that no body of work could epitomize the brashness of the 1980s better, or be better suited to the speed of the digital present, than the work of Barbara Kruger. Now at Skarstedt’s London gallery, Barbara Kruger: Early Works is an opportunity to see if memory serves history.

Barbara Kruger. Untitled (Business as usual), 1987; gelatin silver print in artist’s frame; artist’s proof  from an edition of one, plus one artist’s proof. 49 x 60 3/8 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Skarstedt.

Barbara Kruger. Untitled (Business as Usual), 1987; gelatin silver print in artist’s frame; 49 x 60 3/18 in.; artist’s proof from an edition of one, plus one artist’s proof. Courtesy of the Artist and Skarstedt.

More of a very brief sample than a true survey, the exhibition is not particularly cohesive—but then it’s not supposed to be. It’s an opportunity to see the early works of Barbara Kruger that can still be purchased. Getting past the secondary-market effect, these pieces collectively offer insight into Kruger’s conceptual framework. Polar stances are formed by the norm and the artist’s critique. This is the traditional quick read of Kruger’s work as a feminist deconstruction utilizing truth-to-power statements paired with imagery that underscores the text. What becomes apparent when surrounded by the seven-piece show is how much the viewer is implicated in each of her assertions. Kruger incriminates the viewer through the brilliant use of the pronoun you; you–the viewer–manifest this problem. This is a shocking (re)revelation. For those that see themselves as being on the “correct side” of the critique, Kruger’s work was about the other—a kind of ideological enemy against whom one might take a polemical stance. It’s not. It’s about the viewer’s predicament within the space that is created between the critique and the projected other’s position.

Barbara Kruger. Untitled (Don't buy us with apologies), 1986; photostat print in artist's frame; 48 3/4 x 54 7/8 in. (123.8 x 139.5 cm.) framed. Courtesy of the Artist and Skarstedt.

Barbara Kruger. Untitled (Don’t Buy Us with Apologies), 1986; photostat print in artist’s frame; 48 3/4 x
54 7/8 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Skarstedt.

The treat of the show, Untitled (Don’t Buy Us with Apologies) (1986), is a deceptively quieter work in a two-tone yellowish-white and black Photostat image with red text to match the “artist frame.” The image depicts a suited man from the calf down, walking toward the viewer. The viewer’s perspective is from the ground, looking up at the underside of his fast-approaching left sole. The text sits just below the left downward-moving foot, and can be seen as a gesture of resistance that acts as a possible stumbling block, or as the impending violent retaliation to a challenge to the power structure, or bit of both. Don’t Buy Us with Apologies is an aggressive statement that takes a zero-tolerance position to power that attempts to engage in damage control. The content and directness of the text isn’t unusual for Kruger, but the placement within the image seems very different from other works. The text isn’t boxed and layered over the picture to obstruct; it exists within the same plane and hence is vulnerable. This piece presents a powerful multilayered critique of power and resistance, and clearly presents the inevitable consequence of shouting the truth. There will always be a response to challenging the establishment, and it’s never pleasant.

Barbara Kruger. Untitled (Your money talks), 1984; gelatin silver print in artist’s frame; artist’s proof from an edition of one, plus one artist’s proof. 49 x 61 5/8 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Skarstedt.

Barbara Kruger. Untitled (Your Money Talks), 1984; gelatin silver print in artist’s frame; 49 x 61 5/8 in.; artist’s proof from an edition of one, plus one artist’s proof. Courtesy of the Artist and Skarstedt.

Kruger’s “paste-ups” were made at a time when a postmodern gesture could embody the understanding that information is power. Paired with found imagery, these powerfully catchy phrases would appear to be the perfect meme, but in an age where information is entertainment, they feel a bit too slow and complex. It’s not that they can’t or don’t exist as digital statements, but at this point, they lose their power compared to their analog counterparts. This is due to the way in which Kruger’s analog images are read and mentally processed. They appear to be quick, and yet the visual message stays with you—unlike a tweet that is swiftly buried in a feed.

(from left to right) Barbara Kruger. Untitled (Your life is a perpetual insomnia), 1981; gelatin silver print laid down on cardboard in artist's frame; 72 1/8 x 46 1/2 in.; Untitled (You  Kill Time), 1983; gelatin silver print in artist's frame; 72 3/4 x 49 1/4 in. Both works courtesy of the Artist and Skarstedt.

(from left to right) Barbara Kruger. Untitled (Your Life Is a Perpetual Insomnia), 1981; gelatin silver print laid down on cardboard in artist’s frame; 72 1/8 x 46 1/2 in.; Untitled (You Kill Time), 1983; gelatin silver print in artist’s frame; 72 3/4 x 49 1/4 in. Both works courtesy of the Artist and Skarstedt.

Kruger implicates the viewers through their ability to evaluate. The mere act of having an opinion locates the audience within a binary structure and forces them to consider if they are for or against the construct. Yet the mind can’t always achieve a stable position in a binary system, and the attempt at resolution becomes a catalyst for an existential crisis. This stalemate opens up the possibility of multiple understandings. By forcing a binary, Kruger challenges not just her ideological target, but the whole infrastructure of binary thinking. In this way, Kruger gets to have her political say, and by creating a provocative space where the viewer is uncomfortable, she opens up an understanding of the world beyond binary extremes. It’s a bit of having one’s cake and eating it too, but it pushes the dialogue beyond singular opposing concepts and offers a place within extreme stances where something different can happen.

Barbara Kruger: Early Works is on view at Skarstedt Gallery in London through April 11, 2015.

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