Friday, 13 May 2011

Gallery visit- Barbara Kruger

Staring out of a window into the wintry drizzle on London's Dover Street is a small black- and-white image of a man's face, streaked in blood, with wide, maniacal staring eyes. The image looks like a still from a Hammer horror film. Strips of bold text have been pasted onto the man's face, creating the appearance of a chic, ironic advertisement. "Our prices," it reads, "are insane". The work is a collage by the American artist Barbara Kruger, hanging in the window of Sprüth Magers gallery as part of Paste Up, a small exhibition of her collages from the 1980s. While hanging this piece in the window might be something of a joke on the commercial gallery's role as "shop", trying to entice in viewers during times of recession, there is something darker in the horror of the man's terrorised expression that hints at the true insanity of economics, an insanity that is now continually making itself felt.

Barbara Kruger is best known for her works such as this: bold, direct, graphic combinations of words and imagery so compelling that their influence has pervaded beyond the artworld. Her work, often a strong mix of red, white and black, includes such deadpan, now familiar, images such as a hand holding a credit card which reads "I shop therefore I am", and an image of a classical marble sculpture of a beautiful woman's face with the words: "Your gaze hits the side of my face".

What remains so important about Kruger's work is the way in which, with just a scalpel and some glue, she managed to subvert the common modes of address from advertising and the media. Well-versed in punchy layouts, she once worked (like those important cullers of America's pop culture, Richard Prince and Ed Ruscha) at a magazine – Mademoiselle, as chief designer. Traditionally the "we" of an advertising text is the company, and the "you" the potential customer. In Kruger's work, however, this persuasive, almost hypnotic tone of address is dramatically destabilised, and crucially, most often her "we" talks from a feminine standpoint and her "you" addresses an often oppressive male spectator. In Paste Up we see examples of this: another disarmingly wild-looking image depicts what appears to be a woman in the throws of some kind of fit with hair obscuring her face, overlaid with the words "We decorate your life", while in another horror movie image, a woman cowers in bed from a giant claw-like hand accompanied by the words: "We won't be our own best enemy". However important these gender distinctions are in many of Kruger's works, there are other complicated depictions of power-play at work. It's hard to see an image of a graceful pair of hands submerged in water, pulling out a plug with the words "Now you see us now you don't" without thinking about the AIDS crisis in New York, which was affecting many artists during the 1980s. Visibility, in that case, was becoming a matter of life and death.

While this exhibition is small and slight, it still has something to say, and those deft combinations of word and image still have enough punch to incite frustration. Money, another classically 1980s subject, reappears thematically throughout, indicating that we haven't learned much in the years that have passed. In a series of collages in the back room, each including a question, one sees a plume of smoke from a man's cigar rising toward the sky. "Who is bought and sold?" it asks, as we imagine the smoker relaxing back after making a big sale, exhaling as the smoke spins and twirls towards the darkness like a soul leaving a body.

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