Tony Soprano. Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman. Donald Trump.
What do these three figures have in common? Is it their putty-like pudgy faces? How about Donald Trump’s wielding of Alfred E. Neuman as an insult against Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg? Or maybe the mob boss actions of our former ketchup-throwing, table cloth-swiping President who still seems to be predictably yet always deniably intimidating witnesses in front of Liz Cheney’s dour face at the January 6 Commission? I would say the link between this threesome is absurdity, except, other than his slinky tank-top, I don’t find Tony Soprano very absurd unless you count the overarching Sopranos conceit of a crime family member in therapy. Certainly, Trump could use more than a few sessions.
The only common connection between these three figures is that they flashed in rapid succession in Barbara Kruger’s new(ish) video Untitled (No Comment) in her current show at David Zwirner’s 19th Street galleries. Surely, there MUST be something viewers should glean from this doughy trio, isn’t there? Or perhaps there isn’t and it’s just tailor-made to convince viewers they’re witnessing incisive political critique when, really, all they’re receiving is a meandering Google image search.
Part of my distaste for this comparison in Kruger’s Untitled (No Comment) is simply the presence of Trump. This wasn’t even the only time Trump’s ugly mug crossed the screen in Kruger’s video. Earlier, a dizzying, seizure-inducing segment sped through a nightmarish sideshow…I mean, slideshow…of Trump, his longtime heroes like closeted disco lawyer Roy Cohn, and his minions like the perpetually grumpy former Press Secretary and soon-to-be Governor of Arkansas Sarah Huckabee Sanders set to the clownish strains of the carnivalesque “Entry of the Gladiators.” Real deep.
While the video itself was made in 2020, I can say with absolute confidence that nobody—NOBODY—wants to see Trump art in 2022. Sure, there is a way to interrogate Trump’s place in American society that is complex, frightening, and multifaceted as seen in Andres Serrano’s pop-up exhibition The Game. The Game was filled to the brim with Trump-branded garbage from his hotels, casinos, failed businesses and universities, and various brand deals including Trump Vodka and Trump-emblazoned Snapple, all of which alarmingly depicted that, far from being a malignant oddity, Trump is inextricable from American culture. He is us. Yet this type of political statement requires a kind of ethical amorphousness that many gallery-goers aren’t comfortable with (I think I was one of the only people who liked that show). Conversely, Kruger’s Trump imagery, like most Trump art, sets up a divide (like we need more of those) primed to satisfy audiences with a certain political bias, splitting those that are implicated from those (apparently on the right side of history) who are not and can feel secure in their morality. Frankly, though, I don’t want to look at either kind of Trump art at the moment.
I should note that Trump and his cronies don’t make up all of Untitled (No Comment). Not in the least. The video is a head-spinning rapid-fire trip into our cultural gutter: cats in toilets, hair tutorials, talking cats, an accordion emblazoned with words like “Trolled and “Ghosted,” a meandering directional route through byways named after jealousy and desire, shining jewels, blurred out Instagram accounts posting photographs of Kruger’s I shop therefore I am piece, and, of course, Kruger’s own white-on-red text spelling out wordy yet ambiguous phrases. For instance, at one point, the text zips into view reading: “Work the stupid. Work the crazy. Work the fear. Work the guilt. Work the gullible. Work the can.” In other parts, this text is interwoven amidst illustrations of verklempt men and women. In yet other segments, it’s no longer Kruger’s words but cited quotations from other thinkers like Voltaire (whose quote “Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities” seems directly related to Trump) and Kendrick Lamar’s line “Be humble bitch sit down” from his song “HUMBLE.” Is Kruger saying Lamar’s line to Trump and other egomaniacal authoritarian-leaning despots? To our social media-obsessed culture where we’re all enacting our own renditions of Narcissus gazing into the black screen? Or is it revealing the misogyny at work in Lamar’s song? Either way, the dynamic between an older white woman artist appropriating and reinterpreting the words of a younger Black artist definitely does not work out in Kruger’s favor. I may have left that out.
If this sounds like a lot, it really is (and this isn’t even delving into the texts suddenly jumping from one screen to three and swirling around on the screen like a never-ending scrolling chyron). And yet at the same time, it isn’t. While the flurry of imagery, text, and political figures might have been dazzling—or nauseating—visually, conceptually it felt completely empty. Of course, I understand Kruger, ever fixated by media, is attempting to mimic our wild, loud, violent, beasty, ghastly Internet-driven culture, one that has essentially divided our society, encouraged conspiracies, extremist behaviors, and activist infighting, and transformed each and every one of us into brands. Yet, I can’t for the life of me figure out what Barbara Kruger is trying to say about it and why. Sure, the Internet is a wasteland of cat pictures and hair how-tos, but what of it? It’s not as if we need the chaos of our culture reflected back at us to get it. And anyway, others have tackled this in more emotionally resonant ways–most recently, Jane Schoenbrun’s film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, which illustrates the draw to creepypasta thrills and nervous breakdowns when juxtaposed with teenage alienation within the desolate wasteland of deteriorating Middle America.
In fact, sitting alone in the darkened video gallery (a pouring rainstorm chased away other visitors for a couple of minutes), making screwed-up faces at my least favorite parts of the video, Untitled (No Comment) felt like the worst piece of video art I’ve seen in a long time. However, I realize I might be the only person to think so. After leaving the video gallery to peruse the rest of the exhibition, I returned to Untitled (No Comment) fascinated by its vacuous spectacle and single-minded political critique that seemed particularly out of touch now with the opposite party in charge and doing a separate but still shitty job of it (as well as the inadequacies and weaknesses of the Obama administration now being laid bare like not codifying Roe). This time, though, I was not alone in the gallery. As the skies cleared, more viewers—mainly women—funneled into the gallery and as they watched the video, held their phones aloft to record their favorite bits from the video.
What the hell was I missing?
It should be said that this rapt awe for Kruger’s art would likely occur no matter what she plopped in the gallery, mostly due to the (unfortunate) continued timeliness of her work. In particular, her banner created for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington has only increased in its significance over time as the United States inches closer to some Handmaid’s Tale dystopia. Emblazoned with the phrase “Your body is a battleground,” the image features a woman’s face sliced in half: one half in black and white and the other in inverted colors like an X-ray. Though she has many other recognizable works, this image especially has become a touchstone. For a good reason. Just the sentence “Your body is a battleground” perfectly illustrates the rage of losing control of your own bodily autonomy as the state turns it into a political football–an experience that has become more and more dire as the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade and states continue to pass anti-trans bills. Perhaps this accounts for the flurry of Kruger-related exhibitions, site-specific installations, or branded Metrocards every few years, most recently her retrospective Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. at LACMA and the Art Institute of Chicago, with a corresponding current site-specific installation at MoMA (which I have yet to see).
The power of these earlier paste-ups, though, exposes the weaknesses of Kruger’s new work in Zwirner, which trades her rich linguistic brevity for a kind of maximalist over-mediated overabundance of language. Immediately upon entering the gallery, the first thing viewers hear is a constant clickity-clacking of typewriter keys that echoes throughout the exhibition. That cacophony is certainly telling as Kruger’s show, like the video Untitled (No Comment), features a whole lot of verbal and visual noise: frantic revisions of marriage vows and the Pledge of Allegiance (“…with liberty and revenge/contempt/judgment…for all), the ticky-typing of an artist statement from 1979, enormous wall-sized vinyls covered in endless meme-d Kruger rip-offs, either reveling in or balking at her notable influence on digital culture, a random audio installation snidely saying, “Sorry,” and a huge wall-mounted text invoking, “Fatuous fools, bloated egos, lovers, singers, speakers, sycophants, professors, posers…creeps, assholes, losers, jerks, haters, players, acolytes, suicides, survivors.” Rather than deepening her renowned social critique, however, this excess only undercut it, while also giving me a throbbing headache.
Take, for instance, her—what she calls—replay or what I suspect is going to be a future NFT drop, Untitled (Your body is a battleground), which turns her iconic original into a digitized single-channel video. Placed in a room with three other replays, all choreographed to play in succession, Untitled (Your body is a battleground) begins with a jumble of jigsaw puzzle pieces that, with sharp snaps, construct, piece by piece, the original image. Is there any conceptual significance to these puzzle pieces other than Kruger discovering a cool new filter on her iPad? I certainly cannot find one and it’s surely not visually compelling by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it reminds me of my mother’s compulsion to “Prisma” every photograph I take, sending me back the refiltered version with pride. Goddamn Boomers…
After the puzzle is complete, there’s still no reprieve from the ever-present migraine-inducing clattering sounds as the phrase “Your body is a battleground” frenetically switches like a slot machine through a litany of other phrases, some more baffling than others. These include phrases such as “My body is money,” “Your body is a piece of fruit,” “Your humility is bullshit,” “Your neck is squeezed,” and “Your heart is broken.” Probably the biggest head-scratcher of them all is “My coffee is a motorboat.”
In its vertical form and too-bright resolution, the video reminded me of the LED ad space in some of the newer subway cars and updated stations. You know, the ones you ignore as they scroll through subway “rules,” that all basically can be summed up by “Don’t be homeless.” It would be one thing if Kruger appeared to be exploring the meaninglessness of language in the public space, but I don’t think that’s her intent. Instead, there seems to be, on Kruger’s part, a fundamental misunderstanding of her own strengths. “Your body is a battleground” or her other seminal phrases like “You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men,” which, in just a few words, conjures up notions of violence, latent homoeroticism, homophobia, and the intersection between sex and brutality, are striking because they’re short, vague yet imbued with layers of meaning. “My coffee is a motorboat,” in contrast, evokes, well, nada. It’s not memorable, poetic, or even amusing. It’s dead air.
It’s not only the short texts that lose their point in proliferation. At least these quippy phrases are somewhat comprehensible, not a glut of pretentious academic jargon meant to impress people who treat critical theory as a holy text. This is not the case with her video Untitled (Artforum), which transforms Kruger’s cover of the magazine’s Summer 2016 issue into a tiring exercise in annotation as she editorializes about words like “fundamentalisms” or “post-“ as in “post-identity,” “post-race,” “post-gender,” and “post-human.” The initial nearly impenetrable text comes from a brief sent to the Summer 2016 issue contributors by then-Artforum Editor-in-Chief Michelle Kuo. Given Kuo’s resignation a little over a year later in the midst of the #MeToo scandal concerning handsy monochromatic Artforum publisher Knight Landesman who was creeping on women and trying to feed them walnuts, it’s hard to watch the video without thinking of the utter irony of droning on and on about identity while being published by a known letch.
Yet instead of adding phrases like, “Do you want a walnut? Let me feed you walnuts” (yes, this is a thing Knight allegedly said to a woman), which I think would be a much more effective feminist critique (of course it would also be one that would require alienating one of the most influential art magazines), Kruger simply piles on more buzzwords on top of buzzwords. For instance, in response to the assertion “Identity is back,” Kruger responds: “When and where did it go? Its new renditions come with the added features of agency, disruption, and exchangeability. In what venues, locations, events, and discourses was identity missing and mistaken? And why?” Hmmm? What does “the added features of agency, disruption, and exchangeability” even mean? What is this adding?
Above all, who is this video speaking to? And why?
These two questions kept ricocheting through my mind as I took in the exhibition. To me, it seemed the show was directed at a very particular audience: highly humanities educated, unquestionably politically liberal, well-versed in art lingo. And I include myself in this target audience, though I tend to shy away from associating too closely with any political ideology if I can help it. Ultimately, Kruger is preaching to the choir, creating her own ideological echo chamber within David Zwirner. And the show certainly pleased its intended audience. All through the exhibition, I observed viewers wandering through the cavernous rooms in hushed reverence as if they were visiting a chapel to radical feminism. Before you accuse me of imposing my own assumptions on viewers, just take a gander at the David Zwirner geotag on Instagram to bear witness to any number of breathless odes to the importance of the exhibition. Or, you know, read any of the gushing reviews of the show or Kruger’s recent museum retrospective.
And this makes me queasy. There’s a phenomenon at work in our society at the moment that is visible in how we critically—or really, uncritically—engage with art, as well as films, books, and other culture that confirms our own political or ideological views. To return to Untitled (No Comment) where this is seen most vividly, the video, in particular its use of Trump imagery, seeks to categorize and placate viewers politically. Those of us in the gallery that laugh at the all-too-easy conflation of Republicans and a circus can feel comforted and secure in our knowledge that we and our chosen politicians are better and not at all a different—but no less of a—freakshow. The other party—those conservatives—are presumed absent, a toothless critique lobbed elsewhere, though I bet there are more than a few Trump-supporting David Zwirner collectors that understand the economics of an unregulated art market and the continually increasing value of blue-chip artwork, no matter what ‘radical’ political sentiment it conveys.
Now, this doesn’t mean Kruger doesn’t deserve the avalanche of respect she receives or that I’m just singling her out for critique. There are copious other examples of this type of unthinking groupthink about art and culture that is pre-designated as politically radical or relevant (Find any film on Rotten Tomatoes that has a high critic rating and a low audience score and you’ll land on another instance). Because it seems everyone has already collectively decided on these works’ successes in that regard, nobody, not even renowned critics, takes a step back to question whether they are, in fact, radical or even good. Or if the artist is resting on their laurels and their presumed righteousness so that the audience, too, can avoid implication or action. To me, knee-jerk accolades that refuse to critically engage with the work at hand aren’t what I’d call respect.