It’s a funny thing to be able to go back and reconsider an artist’s early works after thirty years, partly because the time capsule of memory remembers the work in the context in which it was made. Viewing the work again in the present reflects the context of that prior time as it’s understood now. The aggressively fast-paced 1980s are faster in memory than they actually were. The once-fleeting Warholian milestone of fifteen minutes can now be measured in terms of nearly 8 millions tweets. So it would seem that no body of work could epitomize the brashness of the 1980s better, or be better suited to the speed of the digital present, than the work of Barbara Kruger. Now at Skarstedt’s London gallery, Barbara Kruger: Early Works is an opportunity to see if memory serves history.
More of a very brief sample than a true survey, the exhibition is not particularly cohesive—but then it’s not supposed to be. It’s an opportunity to see the early works of Barbara Kruger that can still be purchased. Getting past the secondary-market effect, these pieces collectively offer insight into Kruger’s conceptual framework. Polar stances are formed by the norm and the artist’s critique. This is the traditional quick read of Kruger’s work as a feminist deconstruction utilizing truth-to-power statements paired with imagery that underscores the text. What becomes apparent when surrounded by the seven-piece show is how much the viewer is implicated in each of her assertions. Kruger incriminates the viewer through the brilliant use of the pronoun you; you–the viewer–manifest this problem. This is a shocking (re)revelation. For those that see themselves as being on the “correct side” of the critique, Kruger’s work was about the other—a kind of ideological enemy against whom one might take a polemical stance. It’s not. It’s about the viewer’s predicament within the space that is created between the critique and the projected other’s position.