at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery

Being a world-renowned artist can have its dangers. You might get so used to that glorious view from the top of the heap that you stop taking chances. Barbara Kruger’s latest show looks like a replay of the kind of work that first won her major notoriety in New York during the early 80s. Except now it’s bigger and slicker. The Kruger trademark for some time now has been cropped, billboard-size black-and-white photo images with text enclosed in red frames. And by all indications it will continue to be her stamp well into the 21st century. Her sociopolitical, antiestablishment message continues to be relevant, a shout of dissent in the current archconservative milieu. But because of its predictability, the work often fails to engage us. Instead, like the commercial advertising it is meant to rebuke, it imposes on us with its size and glibness.

As always, Kruger’s found images range from the obviously illustrative to the strangely ambiguous. Some have been printed as eight-foot-tall photographs, others have been silk-screened onto even larger stretches of vinyl. Because she chooses to critique advertising (and the culture it serves) using advertising’s own tools, her images often suffer from the same inability to sustain the viewers’s attention. The real power of her work has usually been its striking use of deceptively simple text, and the current show is no exception.

The few white words on red background strips within each composition transform a familiar aphorism into a pseudo ad slogan, often expressed interrogatively. For example, “No one is beyond the law” becomes “Who is beyond the law?” Similarly, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” becomes “Who does the crime? Who does the time?” By making these slight but crucial changes, Kruger turns the phrase against its own original meaning, questioning the authority that invented it. It is a textbook example of the deconstruction of meaning expounded by many recent linguistic theorists, and it achieves a powerfully accusatory but open-ended social critique that ultimately implicates us all.

Much of the political dialogue of the current show arises from our efforts to determine who is the “who” of the sentences in the six “question” pieces. In Untitled (Who is bought and sold?), we see a man’s face at the base of the eight-foot image. This picture seems to have been shot from the floor with the lens pointing directly upward; the man’s chin occupies the foreground, and his mouth, nose, and eyes lie behind it at a slight incline. In his mouth is clenched a long cigarette holder with the stub of a smoldering cigarette in it, from which a thick cloud of smoke billows up several feet to the top of the image. The camera angle places the viewer on the floor, like a rug or a cadaver, and helps define the “who” in this piece: you begin to feel like the merchandise this sinister smoker is callously hawking. You can almost feel the cigarette ash he unconcernedly lets fall on your face as he wheels and deals with an unseen buyer. But who is he selling us to, and for what reason? At what price? It seems the business establishment, if not the entire capitalist system, stands accused of wholesale dehumanization.

Pinpointing the identity of the profiteering gods still further is Untitled (Who is beyond the law?), which focuses on the white male executive. This piece brilliantly blends content and form. An extreme close-up of a man’s face fills most of the photograph, which measures eight by three and a half feet. Along the upper edge, the right eye has been cropped, and only part of the left eye is squeezed into the upper left corner. The cheeks are abruptly cut by the left and right sides of the red frame. The chin rests on a fisted hand that disappears into shadow along the bottom edge. This male seems to be in his 30s and wears a pensive yet vacant expression, like a Gentleman’s Quarterly model. The prodigious enlargement exaggerates the original photographic dot pattern to the point of abstraction. Contour lines defining the features begin to dissolve into mysterious, nonhuman areas of light and shadow. The nose becomes an amorphous charcoal-colored island. In some areas of the cheeks and forehead, the highlights are so strong they obliterate detail, making their own blazing white shapes. This piece seems to suggest that, for those who can afford to pay bribes and hire the best attorneys, law is nothing more than a philosophical abstraction in which normal boundaries are dissolved.

In billboard fashion, Kruger’s images are a quick read; they often serve merely to catch the eye and illustrate the text. However, she sometimes selects images with just enough of a twist to make the viewer look closer. In Untitled (Who follows orders?), a young man in a tie and white shirt stands before an assembly line of geometrical objects that look like pieces in an abstract puzzle. These pieces are separated by a divider into two groups, which seem each other’s black-and-white reverse images. The perceptual flip-flop resulting from this positive-negative visual piques us into a prolonged consideration. Soon the geometric shapes begin to look like a molten lava flow, and the whole piece, with its contrasty chiaroscuro, begins to look like a horror film.

The main character in this assembly-line drama is a generic-looking young fellow who might have stepped from the pages of a factory brochure of the 1950s. But our inability to locate him in a specific time period gives the image an ambiguity and psychological distance vital to Kruger’s social critique. It is vital because it keeps us wondering, keeps us questioning, and questioning leads us directly into Kruger’s territory: “Who is this character, and who is his boss? If he follows orders long enough, will he too become beyond the law? What is our place in this chain of command?”

Unfortunately, because we are so familiar with her style, we tend to dismiss some of Kruger’s more direct pieces as obvious one-liners. Untitled (Who is born to lose?) features a huge bent nail that says nothing much beyond its literal meaning. Of the three large silk screens in the room adjacent to the “who” pictures, two also fail to rise above mere textual illustration.

Untitled (Love is something you fall into) is a horizontal piece depicting a close-up of a woman’s downward-facing profile. Her hair is long and wet. She may be in this position because she is about to dry her hair with an unseen towel. This likelihood trivializes the piece and chains it to its initial cliched meaning.

A similar failure of text and image nullifies the impact of Untitled (It’s a small world but not if you have to clean it). This is the largest and least interesting work in the show. A pert young woman dressed neatly in sweater and blouse holds a large magnifying glass to her face. Behind it we see the enlarged eye, monstrous compared to her other eye. There is simply nothing in this composition that leads us to dig down to a meaning deeper than the superficial level of the joke. It’s common knowledge that women still do the majority of cleaning despite the feminist movement’s push for equality. So what else is new? Any political or metaphorical significance the monster eye might have is wiped out by the one-dimensionality of the text. Because the figure here is female, we know immediately who “you” is.

The third billboard-size silk screen offers a fun, effective jab at the Reagan Contra scandal. Untitled (Who does the crime? Who does the time?) depicts a close-up of two tuxedoed men literally at each other’s throats. The man on the right is trying so hard to choke his opponent that his eyes are squeezed shut and his face wears a terrible grimace; the efforts of the man on the left are feeble by comparison. The more aggressive man looks like a slightly younger Ronald Reagan, and this fact coupled with the text seems to point unmistakably to the trouble Reagan may be getting into as the Contra hearings continue. Are the tables being turned on those who thought they were above the law?

Kruger’s images run the gamut from silly to savvy, but to see her most impressive work you must look on the floor instead of the walls. In the same room as the silk screens, the entire floor has been painted in large white letters on a bright red field. At first I was uncertain about walking on it. I stood at the room’s threshold until I’d spotted some reassuring footprints.

I have never before seen Kruger utilize the floor in her work; so this “piece” came as a welcome surprise. The text is so large that you can’t read it all from one position. You must walk back and forth a bit. It says, “All that seemed beneath you is speaking to you now. All that seemed deaf hears you. All that seemed dumb knows what’s on your mind. All that seemed blind is following in your footsteps.” These fortune-cookie words strike a strange visceral chord, for they are simultaneously melodramatic and sad, portentous and baffling. They seem to be a warning, but against whom or what is unclear. Perhaps it is against our own repetitious mistakes. Here again, ambiguity invites prolonged speculation.

In conjunction with the show, Kruger has installed an actual billboard near the corner of State Street and Walton that demands housing and health care. She has been exhibiting billboards internationally since 1979, a less well known fact that makes the persistence of her red, black, and white trademark style more understandable. This color combination is often favored by advertisers, who must convey their product message in a split second to passing motorists. Kruger’s billboards must do the same.

But the audience looking at art in a gallery obviously differs from motorists negotiating the congestion and clamor of urban streets. In a gallery, Kruger’s trademark risks becoming tiresome over the years. Unless the visual format is varied considerably, the viewer may barely glance at the work–the formula is simply too familiar. This is unfortunate, because Kruger still has much to say. The floor piece indicates her awareness of the problem and points to an exciting way out. And if anyone can find a way to turn a floor into a strong political statement and a valuable art commodity, Barbara Kruger can do it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Tropea.