A Fusion of Text & Images

With acclaimed American artist, Barbara Kruger, showcasing her early work at Sprüth Magers London, questions about the cultures of consumerism have rarely been so incisive or timely.

Barbara Kruger’s (b.1945) London show, Paste Up, opens at the tail end of an increasingly complicated year making it a timely reappraisal of her early practice. In addition to offering an acute cultural insight, Kruger’s work also presents a serious conceptual exploration into the juxtaposition of language and image. By using contrasting layers, Kruger’s work has for almost three decades questioned the nature of a media-saturated society in late capitalism, and the significance of highly evolved cultures of consumerism and the making of social identities. Her fusion of text and image is inimitable and resonates in the mainstay of today’s over-saturated consumer world.

The way in which cultural hegemony makes its foray into the quotidian is deceptively simple: soundbites, slogans and the power of “direct address” on the consumer/viewer. This has reduced us to drones for decades. However, as far as Kruger is concerned her method of appropriation and subversion defined the inherent potential of a single image. Indeed even back in the 1970s it provided enough fervour for her to begin developing her own approach, one that is now world-renowned. With all of the visual techniques bequeathed by a decade in graphic design, Kruger wielded a new type of composition. Made up of altered found images, mostly from mid-century American media sources, it was the words placed over them that provided much of the jarring, unsettling power. The technique was known professionally as “paste ups”, and the eponymous solo show at Sprüth Magers London allows us to witness such fascinating emblems of a pre-Photoshop past. They are items of encapsulated aesthetic beauty, in much the same way as Andy Warhol’s ironic portrayals of Pop culture. Like Warhol, Kruger worked in magazine publishing, a hotbed it would seem of edgy visual ideas.

Whereas Warhol has continued to colonise culture with his instantly recognisable art, Kruger is firmly embedded in the “provocative art” genre. Warhol’s depictions of icons are as ubiquitous as muzak. They’re on posters, soup cans, sweet wrappers and nearly everything in between. Though well represented in Pop culture, and similarly blurring the line between art and commerce, Kruger is denied the same omnipresence as Warhol. Why? Surely her work is as simultaneously stylish and thought provoking?

The answer is simple. It’s because Kruger’s art does more than provoke, it directly asks the viewer to question their immediate position. Kruger has always roused us, and alongside the chic “paste ups” she targets the very words that offer reassurance. Propagandists use direct address in “Britain Needs You”, or advertisers for gambling employ “It Could Be You.” Subtle, no, but always effective. Kruger, with the shrewdness that only profound analysis can engender, helps to undercut the authority of consumerism and cultures of power using the very tools that perpetuate it. Thus Your Comfort is My Silence, a work by Kruger, throws us. We don’t want to hear the word “my”, indeed we may try to ignore it in the same way we ignore the “made in a sweatshop” labels on our clothes. If we do notice it, then we’re shaken, and a reaction takes place that is a common symptom of viewing Kruger’s art. We are forced to infer that “you” means something else, in this case an otherness that is not viewing the picture at the moment. Capitalism? A military power? The answer is perhaps less important than the process of rupturing, that lurchingly thrilling moment when the true art lover is thrown a curve ball and has to skip track and end up in a different mind zone.

Kruger’s “paste ups” employ pronouns to combat the insidiously manipulative and subjugating power of consumerist ideology because that very same ideology has shown how effective pronouns can be. “I”, “you”, “we” usher the public into a world where it is dangerously easy to abandon decision making abilities. Market forces and those who have managed to harness them know exactly what they’re doing. A well-used pronoun is like incidental music in melodrama: it mugs us, softens us and can often make us shed a tear or two. At least Kruger, with a fusion of zeal, style and humour, allows a re-invention of this relationship. We Are All That Heaven Allows, her 1984 piece, and 1985’s Money Can Buy You Love assert a strange mixture of pleasure, guilt and servitude.

Is Paste Up a retrospective? Well, not exactly. Although the collages are examples of a technique rendered somewhat obsolete by the rise of Photoshop, these are not fossils exhibited to make viewers feel cosy and complacent. They are at turns accusing, wryly humorous, and disorienting. They seem to have predicted what would eventually lead us into the foggy financial crisis, and rather than just provide answers, they empower and implicate us by suggesting a new paradigm. Who would have thought pronouns could be so powerful? The millions killed by wars, the millions of girls made to feel ugly and inferior to boys, and the millions who throw money away on tasteless items and pastimes they don’t need and very likely don’t enjoy – these people might have an answer. This is, by any standards, an important show. Kruger belongs to a canon of artists that have seen dizzying changes in the world, yet she knows that the same old systems trundle on.

For over 30 years, Kruger has unpacked the building blocks of a media-saturated society deep within the throes of consumerism, probing and questioning the construction of identity. Although her practice is embedded in the visual and political culture of mass media and advertising, her work moves beyond simple appropriation and the ironic rumination on consumerism that animated earlier movements such as Pop art employed. Kruger’s unique blend of conceptual sophistication and social commentary has made her one of the most respected and admired artists of her generation, and this serendipitous reappraisal of her early practice reveals the ingenuity and precision of her craft. Above all, these works are beautiful, and they will thrill you.

Paste Up continued until 16 January 2010. www.spruethmagers.com.

Greg McGee