By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Courtesy the Geffen Contemporary|
Who is Barbara Kruger, and why is she saying all these terrible things about you? Back at the recession end of the decade, a string of those hectoring queries -- "Who does time? Who follows orders? Who salutes longest?" -- stretched across the business end of the Temporary Contemporary (as MOCA's Geffen annex was known then). Kruger had emblazoned them there, in the general shape of an American flag -- having come up with this format and these questions after extensive interaction with the Little Tokyo community, whose sensitivity to issues of patriotism had put the kibosh on a more pointedly political project.
Barbara Kruger has a lot to say, and many ways to say it. She has worked in a vast array of media and métiers, writing everything from poetry to music criticism, organizing everything from exhibitions to public projects, presenting her normally black-and-white-and-red word-'n'-image configurations on everything from billboards to tote bags to matchbook covers, and working in media as diverse as paper, etched metal, and film. She has done everything we might call "art" except live performance. And maybe music, although she did do the sets for Rage Against the Machine's 1997 tour. We're waiting for her to do an opera. The Threepenny Opera, perhaps?
Kruger's work is in fact very Brechtian -- arch, caustic, judgmental, taciturn and thoroughly devoted to the spectacle, both exploiting it and deconstructing it. Every Kruger image or installation engulfs you in information, but allows -- even encourages -- your critical distance by hurling weirdly familiar pictures at you, pictures embellished with words in a strangely self-effacing typeface (Futura Bold Italic, for the most part). The effect is vertigo-inducing and quite irksome, but at the same time, incorporating as it does those stock pictures from 1940s and '50s advertising and those rhythmic, rock-lyric-like declamations, it is readily recognizable, very easily comprehended, and oddly enjoyable in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. It ultimately makes you complicit in its cleverness, which of course is the whole idea. Kruger's brazen, read-it-from-the-highway visual style and her verbal phrasing, so redolent of slogans, clichés, political commercials, ad-campaign phrases, greeting-card bromides and the like, can be recognized and read from a mile away -- although they rarely allow you that comfortable distance, physically much less psychologically.
The aforementioned materials are displayed, or at least documented, in MOCA's "midcareer retrospective." (And many of the commercial objects are available in the shop -- better buys than those van Gogh scarves, because she designed the tchotchkes herself.) The show is dominated by several immense installations, in which the ominous phrases come at you visually, sonically and tactilely, and the banal, frightening images descend on you like Furies. There is one quiet sequence of galleries where Kruger's early word works, the typography-photograph juxtapositions of 197880, are tidily collected and displayed. But even these smaller, more bookish apparitions prove unsettling, whether in their off-kilter poetry ("The technology of disposability/The appearance of stucco/The diving board as metaphor/The appreciation of athletic prowess"), their aggressive revelation of social presumptions, or even their dry, vacant, faux-Hemingway prose (coupled in her earliest series with black-and-white photographs of bland architecture -- photos, incidentally but unmistakably, taken here in L.A.).
Kruger's latest work is also on view, upstairs, and includes several painted fiberglass sculptures that seem to lift a page from, of all people, Jeff Koons. But where Koons' grating mega-figurines wallow knowingly in narcissism, Kruger's look for a deeper, harsher message. Not yet articulated with the same intellectual precision as her flat imagery, these statues still address a society of the spectacle, and seek redress for its delusions and its ills. Barbara Kruger thus spins her critical gyre ever wider around the culture of consumption and its addiction to imagery.
KRUGER'S ART WASN'T ALWAYS SO GRAPHOCENTRIC. IT was, however, impelled from the very beginning by the interaction of personal and social concerns, specifically her search for identity as a woman and female artist. She emerged in the early '70s as a lively practitioner of "femmage," utilizing and valorizing forms and materials associated with "women's work," and evolving into pattern painting. But by 1977 painting had become for her just a matter of making pleasing objects and feeding an art career.
When she was in college, combining image and word was a radical notion: Painters and sculptors eschewed words; conceptual artists avoided just about anything else. But the ferociously well-read, hyperarticulate Kruger bagged school, taking a job at Condé Nast and â
becoming chief art director at Mademoiselle magazine within two years. Even after leaving that job, she continued a successful career in graphic design -- picking up pointers along the way and gradually gaining the conviction that the visually dynamic combination of words and pictures was the appropriate approach for her to take.