Barbara Kruger: Lost in Emoticon Translation

Influential American artist Barbara Kruger first came to prominence in the 1980’s along with fellow artist’s Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, and Richard Prince – all of which used principles of appropriation as the core of their practice – a prescient fact in the light of today’s contemporary mass media text and image interactions – the artist presents a selection of recognisable works from her oeuvre; and a new site- specific work, and a large scale immersive video, at Modern Art Oxford.

Kruger began in the early 80s with a series of ‘Paste-ups’ as a first foray into collage; an aesthetic which was fully formed and relating directly to the artist’s history as a graphic designer for magazines such as ‘Mademoiselle’ – and a direct relation of the Dadaist aesthetic of collage from the 20s and 30s. Kruger’s works were splicings of black-and-white photographs with white-on-red type faces. The works had the graphic appeal of the billboard, with a deconstructionist anti-establishment bent.

Like the Dada-collagist Hannah Höch before her; Kruger’s work has a feminist leaning, and is not afraid to bite the hand that feeds it through subversive slogans that often attack the very nature of the institution; including the white cube that displays the artist’s work, or at least those who inhabit it – with ‘Fatuous fools, bloated egos’ and ‘Doers, artists, air kissers’ sprawled across Modern Art Oxford’s gallery floor. These words are one-liners satirising the very people standing on top of them while cooing over the artist’s work at any number of Kruger’s private views – but not you of course.   

Spanning a forty year career; Barbara Kruger has juxtaposed text and appropriated imagery, at once occupying and subverting the authority of the mass media strategies that surround us.

In fact the artist began the process before the media’s psychological onslaught reached its saturating fever-pitch on our meagre subjective selves. Much like fellow American artist Richard Prince, Kruger uses the tropes of media language to discuss identity. But unlike Prince’s neutrality of position in terms of his own identity when using appropriated images and text; Kruger positions herself in opposition as antithetical to the machinations of mass media manipulation.

The artist’s installation entitled ‘Untitled (Titled)’ 2014, encompasses the entire surface area of the Upper Gallery, the work is coloured black, white, and green, as a direct response to the space. Kruger dispenses with her use of aphorisms and idioms in favour of a string of nouns and verbs pasted across the walls and floor, as a reflection of the media’s imposition over identity through rhetoric. The work has a bold graphic style and questions the viewers identity with a series of clichés intended to categorise and dismiss.

A wall of emoticons smile and frown out at the viewer as a reminder of the emotionless shorthand society has come to embrace in daily communication. Kruger maintains the Baudrillardian stance where ‘We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning’ – except for the objectification of identity through categorisation and commodification of the individual through reduction and simplification.        

The artist’s exhibition has an immersive quality in which the viewer is placed in an environment that is antithetical to targeted advertising. Whether this is in Kruger’s work ‘Twelve’ 2004, where the viewer sits between the video conversations from a series of soap-operatic interactions, or where the viewer treads on ‘haters’, ‘acolytes’, ‘winners’, and the ‘suicides’ of the artist’s installed words as they   retrospectively dismiss any association to the majority of these negative identities.

Kruger’s talking video-heads and 30-foot words encapsulate an ‘anti-seduction’ in which the viewer must take an active role as a component in the artist’s work and in doing so affirms a personal identity.


Where a consumerist culture would allow the objectification of identity for the purpose of capital gain; Kruger uses the same language to satirise, or even alienate as an antithesis to the seductions of advertising media. This is a reminder to the viewer of the personal responsibility to create individual meaning, and socio-cultural value – and in whose hands that power should be placed – in yours of course.

Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2014 Photo: courtesy Modern Art Oxford

Barbara Kruger Modern Art Oxford 28 June – 31 August 2014

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