CHICAGO – At the entrance to “Thinking” Joyful. I mean Me. I mean you.” stunning, flag-raising new Barbara Kruger retrospective (and elaboration) At the Art Institute of Chicago, you’ll stumble upon one of the artist’s videos set up like a blockade. It’s an image that clicks loudly with each new piece added, put together like a jigsaw puzzle. You stand in front of it as if staring at a Las Vegas slot machine – a lure beam of tsk-tsk propaganda. When completed, the message is delivered with a thud: “I shop therefore I am.”
This is familiar Kruger wisdom using mass media shepherding tools to make sheep think.
On the walls on either side of this work are slates of Kruger imitators, mostly derivative works by anonymous designers and agitators that combine material found from text and media. They use Kruger’s famous stencils (colors, fonts, emoticons, etc.) for countless purposes and collages abandoned by the artist: memes, marketing materials, metacritical. A shot of Patrick Bateman “Die Yuppie Scum!” A picture of Paris Hilton with the caption “100% Natural”. An advertisement for Ségolène Royal’s 2008 French presidential campaign. Some scattered phrases pop up: “I’m Pointless.” “Paid Slave.” “You Are Not Yourself.” “iPhone Therefore I Am.” “Abandoned.”
These paste arrangements are not the most elegant works in this exhibition, but they are perhaps the most telling. Their inclusion is an insightful attempt to fully represent the seemingly limitless influence of Kruger, a loud conceptualist whose simple work takes full force as it is repeated around the world.
Or put it a little differently: “It gives me a superior feeling,” a young woman said as she looked at them one afternoon recently.
Which, of course it is. And this underscores the complexity of revisiting Kruger at this time in image dissemination: his strict adherence approach to questioning groupthink has become so descriptive, so signed, that his innovations have now become core grammars. His art is recombinant. It exists whether it exists or not.
“Think Joyful” bold and believable, sometimes exaggerated and sometimes mischievous. Part retrospective and part revision and update for the ever-moving present, it embodies and thickens Kruger’s projection of the language of advertising and propaganda through an anti-capitalist, humanist lens.
Since the early 1980s, the engine and activity of his work has been taking shape – the red bar with candy apples. white sans serif type, Aphorisms that could be ridicule or request were conveyed, embroidered with Futura Bold Oblique. They envisioned how the infinitely tagged, modern telephone-centric communication would be reduced to the immediacy of the infinitely shareable and the fluidity of the infinitely memorable.
However, they started much more modestly as hand-made stickers, as an extension of Kruger’s work as a graphic designer for Condé Nast magazines. Twenty of the 1980s originals are on display in a poorly lit passageway. Against room-sized jobs, they sound like humble considerations. But they move up close, deeply, almost innocently. Each juxtaposes a dwarf phrase with a stark black-and-white image, but at this scale, they scan more as specific requests than global dictations—frantic pamphlets for young agitators.
Many of the works in the exhibition are, in essence, remixes of the Kruger originals, either site-specific remakes for this show or updated in terms of media. In a nearby gallery, a sticker – “Admit nothing. Blame everybody. Be bitter”—is the basis of a video piece that replaces each word with antonyms one at a time. Several other videos here work similarly, where the composition of a message can be more effective than the message itself. But these videos are also about how we are clumsy with language, how we occasionally jump from one word to another because of the shape they take in our mouth or brain, without realizing that they are opposite. Language is about words, it’s also about context and structure, and sometimes this things override specificity.The meaning can be changed, but the distribution system is not.
But sometimes a Kruger’s scale is the message. Much of his work transcends the space allotted to him and replaces it: “Why Are You Here?” on a wall next to the museum’s main entrance; “Not Dead Enough”, “Not Loud Enough” etc. stair risers. As you can imagine, there are large chunks of text on the exterior of the building, and sprinkled on walls, billboards, and train platforms all over the city – Kruger has always had a graffiti urge.
Kruger’s work is intrusive by design, but in an age of relentless selfies and Instagram buzz, some of his greatest works are denatured in this medium. A piece of vinyl flooring about grotesque, helpless bodies and a gallery wall that touches the many meanings of war becomes places to simply pose, as many people do, in lively austerity. Perhaps this is no different from standing in front of the Mona Lisa, but Kruger’s orders are to be read, not blocked.
In some places, however, the exhibition anticipates these reactions. A small gallery is marked with a disclaimer: You will be filmed. Inside, security cameras in the upper corners capture attendees in front of a pair of walls of text: “I Hate Myself and You Love Me For This”, “I Love Myself And You Hate Me For This.” Elsewhere, in other parts of the museum, four small monitors broadcast streams of people posing for their pictures, perhaps not fully recording what they themselves are art.
This exciting thriller – are you interfering with art or is art interfering with you? – It had the same excitement as Kruger’s original radical attacks. Verbal sound installations in elevators were largely ignored by most passengers, creating a stalemate between the attentive and the indifferent. The sound in the main room is working – “Take care”, “I love you” – it was harder to ignore. They came as advice.
Kruger also sees the museum itself as a playground. Interspersed with other wings are a handful of works—most vividly, a sculpture depicting J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn in a lip-locked embrace in a sculpture gallery, and a video monitor playing the “Public Service Announcements” loop by Kruger in 1996. short videos about his fear and isolation in a Greek, Roman and Byzantine art gallery. These videos are purposeful and clear, whereas Kruger’s multi-wall video installations drain their power within the minutes they emerge.
Its succinctness also has its limitations – it makes its ideology contagious, easy to destabilize, even undermine. It’s hard to breathe in Kruger’s art without inhaling the exhaust fumes of everything he inspires.
Kruger has at times been tempted by the debate about his aesthetic children. in 2013, He made a statement to Complex about a lawsuit between Supreme. and of course a company that borrows the red bar/white text aesthetic that Supreme borrowed from Kruger. “Totally stuffy jokers,” he called them. He was not mistaken.
For many, however, the Kruger aesthetic primarily exists through these meta channels. He also explored this street at various points over the years and produced t-shirts featuring his work. Given this, the range of Kruger items in the gift shop was disappointing: magnets, socks, a “Too Big To Fail” wall clock, an $85 clutch embossed with “Money Talks” that didn’t seem smart enough. Demna Gvasalia age. These haute tchotches sound like a shrug—what was once devastating is now commonplace.
Conversely, a reminder of how truly pervasive Kruger’s approach is now, “Nameless (Our People),” It is a work that he exhibited for the first time in 1994. “Our people are better than your people,” he begins, then continues. “It’s smarter, stronger, more beautiful and cleaner. We are good and you are bad. God is with us.”
It’s about stupid pride and stubborn bigotry. However, it was difficult to absorb this white text on a red background, yet not feel the specter of the use of another highly trafficked white text, on a fiery red background, to convey messages of exaggeration and exclusion.