Research point: Barbara Kruger

Brief

Read through the brief summaries below and choose two artists to explore in more depth. Make notes in your learning log or blog about how your chosen photographers use their art to comment on their own identity and the issue of female identity in general. Note down any similarities and differences between the two. Could any aspects of their work influence your own practice?

I chose Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) and Sam Taylor-Johnson (b.1967, aka Sam Taylor-Wood).

Here I focus on Kruger; the comparison between the two will be at the end of the Taylor-Johnson post.

Graphic style

Kruger’s work has a distinctive style, resembling inter-war Constructivist propaganda: montages of found black-and-white images with bold type slogans overlaid (usually in  Futura Bold Oblique, font fans). The only colour used is red, usually as a backdrop to the text, which also lends a pseudo-communist air to the artworks.

Her early career as a graphic designer for magazines comes very much to the fore – she uses mass media imagery as the basis for her work. The concise and strident slogans and simple images, usually a detail from a larger piece, make for very direct and clear communication of message. Subtlety is largely absent, in comparison to the work of her contemporary Cindy Sherman.

Her use of personal pronouns in the slogans makes the artworks about identity. She often makes bold, declarative statements attributable to, or about, a wider set of people (usually women), such as Your body is a battleground, I shop therefore I am, Your gaze hits the side of my face.

Feminist identity

Feminism and feminine identity comes through as major themes. As previously noted there is a running theme in much feminist art regarding the male gaze – Kruger addresses this in the most direct way possible with Your gaze hits the side of my face (1981) – simultaneously acknowledging the gaze and rejecting it by turning away. And yet an alternative reading is to focus on the word ‘hit’ – the violence of the gaze and allusions to domestic abuse? Either way, the use of a statue as the basis for the image signifies the lengthy history of the gaze and the gazed-upon.

I was amused to see that Kruger recently collaborated with a sunglasses manufacturer using this slogan.

IMGkruger_redandblack_1024x1024

I was less amused to see that Kruger’s more recent work seems to be a little more problematic with regards to her feminist credentials. In 2010 she returned to her magazine design roots with a cover for W magazine:

kruger.jpg
W Magazine cover variants, 2010 – Barbara Kruger

It references the classic agitprop Kruger style and is replete with personal pronouns – yet this is not a found photograph, it’s a highly stylised photoshoot of a blatantly narcissistic and self-serving celebrity. And for someone who in 1981 was all about subverting the male gaze to end up delivering nude Kardashian shot – sorry, but I cried ‘sellout!’ at this…

Although… there are two versions of the cover, one with Kardashian in a strident hands-on-hip pose and the other with a more neutral, open pose. Maybe Kruger did have a feminist message, though it may be too well hidden for me. Kruger’s own take? “I thought it was a funny comment on the need to show and tell constantly” (W Magazine 2010).

Did Kruger’s strident messages change the world? From Mary Warner Marien:

“Future historians may be tempted to date the conclusive demise of Postmodern photographic practice to a particular place and time: New York City, Monday evening, November 8, 2004, when Barbara Kruger’s iconic photograph Untitled (I shop therefore I am), a once heretical and divisive indictment of consumer culture, was sold at auction for $601,600.” (Marien 2014: 491)

Could any aspects of Kruger’s work influence my practice? I don’t think so, certainly not the visual style or the text/image montage approach; it’s all a bit shouty and bold and that’s not really my preferred mode of communication.

Sources

Marien, M.W. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History. (4th ed). UK: Laurence King Publishing.

http://www.theartstory.org/artist-kruger-barbara-artworks.htm (accessed 08/04/2016)

http://hyperallergic.com/33648/thinking-of-magazines-as-art-objects/ (accessed 08/04/2016)

http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/barbara-kruger (accessed 08/04/2016)

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