One of today’s most visible and powerful artists gets dynamic in installations at three of the top museums in the country.
Formerly shown at the Art Institute of Chicago last fall, at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) the first half of 2022, and currently on view in limited fashion at MoMA through January 2, 2023, Barbara Kruger’s “Thinking of
You. I Mean Me. I Mean You” brings the photo-and-text artist into the digital age. What follows is a brief photo essay based on the LACMA version of the show.
Upon arriving at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum on the LACMA campus (not to be confused with the Broad Museum in downtown LA) and after passing through a multitude of COVID checks, one experiences an almost ethereal, transcendent journey up the escalator, decked out in the traditional red, white, and black of Kruger’s own iconic artworks. Even the most casual contemporary art lover is most likely acquainted with some of the more famous artworks that reverberate with protest and cultural critique. In fact, another way up to the exhibit is possible via elevator (when not out of service), completely vinyl wrapped with a tri-color, in your face text-and-photo collage that assaults your eyes and at the same time, dominates the viewer.
It is this direct engagement with the viewer that Kruger is most famous for. Her past works have been mostly static combinations of black and white photos and bold text, reflecting her heritage as a graphic designer for various magazines and drawing upon socialist/Soviet propagandistic art from the early 20th century. Her more traditionally hung artworks are now transformed into digital prints on vinyl that cover and wrap around the walls of the large gallery spaces. Instead of staring at a fixed point, the viewer is now left spinning around in circles and at the same time, walking close to the walls to take all the details in.
Some pieces like “Too big to fail” and “Cast of characters” are purely typographic and are dripping with both irony and playfulness. Kruger loves discordant juxtaposition, an everyday occurrence in the postmodern condition.
As a feminist, Kruger places emphasis on themes of female consumerism and consumption as well as women as objectified bodies. In the “Forever” room, the black and white text becomes completely overwhelming while at the same time mesmerizing and almost hypnotizing to the observer. Clearly the artist is embracing aspects of the current ‘immersive art’ craze that has taken over art exhibitions.
Adopting Digital Language
Yet another trend that is adopted wholesale is the ‘selfie’, with the option for visitors to choose to love or hate themselves. Whichever side of the room is chosen, photographing their smiling faces in at least partial dissonance with the text and then posting to Instagram is bound to take place. (Note: the author may or may not have participated in this social ritual).
Technology is also widely embraced in “Thinking of
You. I Mean Me. I Mean You”. Digital projectors and LED screens of large sizes are often combined with discordant sound effects all played as loops. Barbara Kruger’s art presaged social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook and now is quite at par with the cacophony that is TikTok. Her genius is in utilizing the medium in an ironic and at the same time sincere way, akin to a parody becoming the highest form of the art it mimics.
Even though this immersive experience compels the viewer to touch the artwork and walls, it is emphatically not interactive in that sense. Physically, the viewer is bombarded with visuals and often sound without the opportunity to tactilely swipe offensive content off the screen à la an iPhone. Instead, one is forced to confront uncomfortable images and texts with a critical eye, something quite foreign to the ‘whatever’ generation. Invariably, the usual vapid posts will accompany some photos of Kruger’s show, but undoubtedly her work’s inherent power of critique will leave a mark on all who walk through the galleries.
All photos by Nicholas Cipolla.