Barbara Kruger: Interruption

Barbara Kruger: Sinking Poses. Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston. April 27-June 23, 1985
By Sally Gall
Barbara Kruger's work is an on­going commentary on the social meanings of gender, power, and money, a critique of how power is constructed between men and women, and how images work in culture.
These large works are constructed from photographic images appro­priated from the mass media, usually fragmented, blown up. and always out of context, in Combination with a text or "caption." The images them­selves carry little or no meaning; the meaning resides in Kruger's juxtaposi­tion of text and image. The text is terse, using pronouns, You and We, which directly address the viewer. The text is often accusatory and the tone is one of authority. The results are provocative and assaulting; these same adjectives could be used to describe advertising images. Kruger's method of creating an image does in fact come from mass culture, through the use of a media-generated image, the large size of which makes obvious billboard/poster references (including the visible dot screen) but more spe­cifically from Kruger's eleven years working as a graphic designer for Mademoiselle and a few other Conde Nast publications.
Kruger is after the easy readability of a poster or billboard — she is mimicking a familiar look and style, but using it to mean something quite different. Herein lies the most inter­esting but also most problematic aspect of the work. There is a con­tradiction between the seeming im­mediacy of the work (boldface type, large size, reduction of color/halftone to basic black and white) and the ambiguous and multiple possibilities of meaning. By mimicking the look and style and immediate readability of mass culture imagery her works have a power that defies the viewer to turn away. Their hit-you-over-the-head feeling is unlike other art (lit­erature, critical theory, etc.) that addresses similar issues, much of which is opaque, academic, and with out visual intensity (in respect to the latter, one thinks of the very good work of Victor Burgin). The problem with this immediacy is the potential glibness/facileness of work that seems to simplify very complex issues. There is a great deal of room for the viewer (unlike the advertising/media style) to construe meaning. Some of the images are so ambiguous, allowing all possibility of meaning, that the viewer often ends up with nothing. But there are others that are so sim­ple and direct and specif c that they hit straight on the mark with a shock, transcending any possibility of glib-ness. For instance, a work that has been widely reproduced (although it is not in the current exhibition) shows a photograph of a nuclear mushroom cloud with the caption across it "Your mania's become science" The obviousness works in a way that is more critical than the photograph of a young girl making a face and stick­ing out her tongue, with text that says "Money can buy you love." Another seemingly obvious work that continues to resonate is the im­age of a wave with a woman's face superimposed on it, whose text says "We are transformed into special effects." This work brings to mind all the use and misuse, past and present, of women as "special effects." as ob­jects, which is one of the recurrent themes of Kruger's work. Another potent work about gender is a photo­graph of what appears to be a woman s face covered with either blood or mud (beauty reference, murder/ death/rape reference) with the cap­tion "We are not made for you."
When asked at her gallery talk it the CAM to address her attitude about being an art guerrilla outside the gallery/museum system. Kruger responded by saying that is impossi­ble and unrealistic, that the notion of subversion has more to do with romance than effectiveness, and that no artist could work entirely outside the market structure and be effec­tive. Kruger is realistic in knowing that a high profile involvement in the art world does bring possibilities of doing things outside of it — witness the Times Square sign, billboards in the subways of Paris, and a match magnate and art collector who printed her work on a series of matchbook covers. In a society that consumes everything, that turns on-the-street working class youth's anti­tradition, anti status quo clothing ("punk" only one example among many) into both high fashion and easily digestible mass cheap fashion (safety pin earrings at Sears) she is right. But by speaking to the art world audience about the social meaning of gender, power, and money. Kruger is in a sense convinc­ing those who are already convinced; she is not interrupting" (her word to describe her activity) socially con­ditioned reactions as much as she could. Her purposes might better be served by billboards on the street, and subway, newspaper advertise­ments, and so forth, whatever could reach outside the art world. Among the most effective works by Kruger are the matchbooks covers with her photograph/text combinations printed on them, unsigned and anonomously strewn about by the artist (and others) in all sorts of likely and unlikely places. These truly interrupt, they surprise and shock simply by being in the real world context in a way that the works in a gallery con­text don't. The same rs true of her postcards. (Both are available to see and be purchased in the CAM shop.) One wishes that at the same time Kruger's work is exhibited within the art marketplace, it will more and more be "exhibited" or placed out­side of it. For an art of "interrup­tion” this seems only to be expected.

Suspended Animation: Photographs of Houston Architecture. 1600 Smith. Houston Presented by the Houston Center for Photography. May 23-September 2. 1985.
By Ed Osowski
This selection of over I00 pho­tographs covered almost seventy years of photographic responses to the changing "built" scene in Houston. For the nostalgia buff, a large number of street scenes, by anonymous photographers, captured the look and feel of Houston from the 1920s through the 1940s, a period when its booming had just begun. These photographs, which curator Elizabeth Classman has not dated, tempt one to guess at places and dates. They are rich in detail. People fill them, their clothing now quaint costumes, their automobiles relics of the past. Buildings in them serve as backdrops for the urban dramas enacted on the streets.
Perhaps the most compelling photograph in the exhibition is from this anonymous group. It takes little imagination to see the political and social rituals being enacted m "South Texas Commerce National Bank, Main Street. " A woman, blurred by movement, departs from the bank. A line of cars awaits her. Upon her descent, she will encounter three black men. waiting, loitering, perhaps one about to open the door to her car for her and drive her home Public architecture expresses certain culturally held attitudes about power, control, and wealth. The unknown photographer whose photograph this is knew that well. This photo­graph contains within it the drama that comes from social patterns, roles, expectations.
There is a drama, of sorts, in the eight photographs by Gary Winogrand and George Krause’s four. In them, the built environment either impresses with its glitzy, tacky charm or because of its sterility or op­pressive monumentally, is passed through quickly. Whether Geoff Winningham's version of a parade of businessmen, like drones entering One Shell Plaza, is a cliche-laden im­age is beside the point here. It lakes its aim at the separation between pedestrian and urban space and scores a direct hit.
The street scenes serve as an introduction to a group of photo graphs that express the two polari­ties m architectural photography The belief that photography could repre­sent clearly and accurately the built environment (expressed by Maxime Du Camp this way m 1893: I felt that I needed an instrument of precision to record my impressions if I was to reproduce them accurately ) is set against the approach that replaced objective clarity with romance and emotion, exemplified by Edward Stephen's 1905 "Flatiron Building" — a dreamy, soft recording of a building in which the urban ob­ject becomes an icon.
Glassman has found photographers — William Stern and Danny Samuels, for example — who record with clarity the built world. Samuels also brings delicacy and restraint to his six color prints of shops and ware­houses. The inspiration for Sally Gall's "Untitled" (Transco Tower) and Serge Hambourg's "First City Tower'' can be traced beyond Steichen’s romantic renderings of the city to Baroque painters who chose as their subjects Christ, the Virgin, the apotheosis of the heroes from the myths The swirling clouds and misty distances into which these buildings vanish are the heavens of legend. Gall and Hambourg see buildings as religious totems, soaring monuments to a faith in the metropolis.
But the core of Classman's selec­tion is photographs that offer the subtle message that architecture is somehow suspect Architecture is. of course, our most public, most visible and present, and. in a way, our most intrusive art Buildings, unless de­molished, just won t go away. David Crossley's "Gulf Building " and Bob Buskings One Shell Plaza m Green Glass Reflecting" are Gaudi like buildings, structures threatening to dissolve, their monumentally a hoax. Richard Payne and David Cornue print their images of the city small, almost too small, in an effort to reduce it to a manageable size. There is something both naive and condescending about trying to re­duce a monument to a 4-by-5-inch print and these Two photographers knew itr Wendy Watriss captures a city strangely de-peopled, a world about to drop into shadow, one not without an edge of threat, danger, and mystery. For Manual, reading urban clues becomes an exercise m perversity and confusion. In Casey Williams' enormous "Untitled" the architecture plays a secondary role to his fascination with cultural gee-gaws and color, applied as if he had just discovered it. Paul Hester goes so far as to try to obliterate the built world in "Little House on the Prairie," a photograph of a house, wrapped Christo-like. being trans ported to another location. Hester seems to take a special pleasure in making it difficult for us to see the architecture in his photographs. In "Looking East from Parking Garage, Federal Land Bank. 1980." a large, abstract shape acts as a barrier, cut­ting off our view and denying us en­trance into the space where the skyline rests.
Suspended Animation had omissions which were regrettable. Few domes­tic or civic buildings were included in its survey. And its arrangement made finding its thematic links difficult. But Glassman’s selection was certainly more than a Chamber of Commerce selection of pretty pictures of famous Houston buildings.

Siliconstones: A Photographic Installation, by Carol Gerhardt and Mary Margaret Hansen. The Houston Center for Photography, May 17-June 23, 1985
By April Rapier
Just inside the door was a large mound of living monkey grass, infil­trated by vines and weeds. One was curious as to what this portended but no easy answers were forth­coming, due to the wildly diverse, obscure nature of this installation. The minimalist entrance served to lull the participant (one couldn't merely view this multimedia event; most of the senses were addressed, and it was impossible not to interact with the environment) into a false sense of calm — the calm before a storm of activity and ideas
Although a primary theme of the installation centered around Carol Gerhardt's statement that "the history of humankind is encoded in silicon and stone" (not to be con­fused with rock, its pristine state), and that "human beings have always invested stones with information and symbolic meaning (Mary Margaret Hansen, speaking in the exhibition notes, continued, citing Mecca, tomb­stones, tools, markers of time, and storage banks as examples), more overwhelming was the act of mark-making itself. All the various elements and devices were drawn together as though by the earth's magnetism. Although some of the presentations w^re quite sophisticated (metal fabrications, architectural references, the enormous beauty of rocks, both man-made and real — two tons-worth in one teepee alone), others were a bit facile (wok ponds, mold growing in the still water, jars filled with fortune-cookie rocks). No matter — although much of the symbolic content was impossible to define, it elicited a favorable, nostalgic response. The active sensibilities involved (some irre­sponsibly madcap, others serious and accurate) were those of a collector of memories, a packrat with more than her share of lucky finds.
Certain visual/emotional ideas were articulated referentially — no matter what direction one travelled through the room, the sequential discoveries that Hansen and Gerhardt expanded upon were m evidence. Large stones were mounted on foam core panels with the same ease and assuredness as are photographs. Collage was in the form of drawn or photographic overlay: maps super­imposed over snapshots of the odys­sey that took the artists across Texas to Utah (accompanied by the enor­mous, mottled-pink styrofoam "sili­constone" that served as starting point, central icon, and catalyst, and was built m Gerhardt s backyard), words of response to this conceptual traveling circus, anatomical illustra­tions and photographs of nudes (homage to DaVinci throughout) adorned with scale notations and measuring marks that suggest the Eastern idea oí being spiritually centered {repeated in a plumb fine hanging from the ceiling, which un­doubtedly served other functions as well). Occasionally a recurring device became cloying: few attempts were made to disguise the ubiquitous film strip; only when it interacted with the landscape (as part of the Great Wall of China, for example) did it lose its self-conscious stature On the other hand, rarely did the silicon-stone's presence in an image seem perfunctory — it became a perma­nent fixture throughout the journey.
The seductive tension between geometric and organic forms in the landscape was discovered incremen­tally and presented intuitively, and this underlies the most successful aspect of the collaboration (although a more homogeneous, aligned cove­nant is hard to imagine). It is easy to envision the artists' consummate delight at having decided to include, say, a bolt of cloth or sheafs of dying bamboo. Silver solder and sealing wax were used interchangeably — not new motifs, yet invigorating in this referential context. Hansen and Ger­hardt have clearly articulated the ra­tionale behind every detail of the piece, yet the mysteries that remain are self-perpetuating; the bags of powder, welded metal boxes filled (one is told) with gravel, silicon chips, and circuitry offer more questions than answers. Tuning forks, petro-glyphs, the silicon stone's jewel-encrust­ed crevice, the pleasant opportunity to peruse a wall of old postcards and snapshots, a tape-recorded message on a loop that is an oral history filled with recollections, facts, and femin­ism — although well within the defini­tions of visual, tactile, and aural art. they seem out of their jurisdiction because of a primitive, collective emotional chord sounded. It is my guess that women responded more favorably than men. Phases of the moon are accessible, of the public domain; it is a risky affair to portray them simply as they are, duly noted. Perhaps that is why, if one allowed oneself the luxury and freedom to dream, the environment beckoned, its offerings rich and sincere.
Problems arose early on; many elements and their relationships were inexplicable, no matter how they were approached; one must feel able, after all, to unravel some of the mysteries of a particular concept, in order to appreciate it. Another minor irritant had to do with Gerhardt's signature on what were pre­sumably her photographs: it goes against the collaborative grain to designate artists; the pieces were im­possible to differentiate anyway. If asked to intellectualize about the installation, rather than experience it viscerally as well (which takes con­siderably more effort), one is likely to dismiss many aspects as outrageously self-indulgent diary material — per­sonal odysseys better contemplated in private than public. However, as one was guided through the space from reference to reference, fantasy to reality, ephemeral memory to memento one could celebrate the often simple truths so carefully and lovingly relayed, and thus be moved through many levels of appreciation.
The line between reality and a recreated facsimile was routinely transgressed; a spectacular effort was involved in the evolution and ex­ecution of this serene environment. Unfortunately, responses were ex­treme, and many faithful followers of traditional photography were put off by negative word-of-mouth. In this case, it was the reluctant purists' loss.

Kristen Struebing-Beazley, James Tiebout May 4-29. 1985, Brenville Gallery. 1333 Sterrett, Houston.
By David Porti
Bienville Gallery's May exhibition featured the photographic work of Kristen Struebing-Beazley, an ex­perienced print-maker from New Orleans, and ]im Tiebout, a photog­rapher and publication designer living in Houston. The two photographers greatly contrast in their styles, though both are involved in experiments with photographic printing tech­niques and coloration. Struebing-Beazley's work is dramatic on its sur­face, but naive and weak in its con­tent. Tiebout's photographs have an appearance so understated as to allow themselves to be overlooked, yet they are persistent and subtle expressions. The work of both artists will continue to be seen in Houston. St rue bing-Beaz ley's photos again appearing at Bienville during Foto Fest, in March, 1986.
"I am most interested in groups of two or more figures self-consciously posturing for posterity in ways that a herd of cattle or a flock of sheep would not do; persons posing for preservation of a vestige of Them­selves through the ceremony of picture taking.'' says Struebing-Beailey in a written statement ac­companying her work. Her album-style family groupings are produced from photos she has taken herself or found in other sources, printed as large positive or negative images and then hand tinted, The figures smile and squint from seemingly antique pictures, often chunky and plain, reduced by vivid, opaque colors to their constituent geometric forms Spherical blue heads and sausage arms, rectangular torsoes wrapped in patterned dresses of green and squiggly orange, pants of different, darker blue. The backgrounds are patterned with a printer's instinct so as not to lose the eye. Yet the pic­tures produced in me a disturbing feeling. "The actual living subjects often find what I have done to their memories quite detestable. Their ability to make a swift mental return to the picture has been impaired." The unease generated by the pic­tures extends to other viewers too; it is unenlightening. By her use of col­or, she has blotted the meanings of the pictures out. Struebing-Beazley perhaps hopes to leave viewers won­dering where the meanings went, and what they were. The use of this device in this context is not a contri­bution. The fact that we sometimes feel emotional ties to persons in old photographs, and that we sometimes seek the facts of that depicted time, has already been the subject of many photographs. Those responses and our reliance on old photos that gauge passage of time has also been amply verbalized, by Susan Sontag. for example. To show them again by obscurantist methods is to make superfluous art; necessary for the progress of the artist, maybe, but only in that manner necessary to the arts. The dissatisfaction found in a familiarity with these works is the result, I think, of good technique used for a shallow conception.
By contrast. Jim Tiebout's land­scape photographs effectively use technique to project a mood of reflective calmness. Such a mood is a traditional end for many painters and photographers, yet Tiebout's work differs from the strictly dignified order one senses from the works of the Westons, Callahan. Ansel Adams, Strand. Tiebout posits in his prints the vicissitudes of blowing litter: feedbags from farms and plastic sheets from the beds of trucks are snagged on spiney cactus and barbed wire fence. This arrestation of trash is the aftermath of a violent wind­storm. Upon the original silver-print image. Tiebout accentuates the forms of the blown debris and land­scape with gentle color. Details of disheveled grasses, distant tankcars, ocotillo shrubs, and pricklypear cacti benefit from the subtle handwork in seemingly sunbleached hues. The mood established is not just one of calm, but of calmness restored, a metaphor effectively given. Other work by Tiebout relies on different techniques but often preserves this moodiness. In a group of silver-print photos, shrubs wrapped in plastic and ropes stand prepared in the midst of grassy front yards They are prepared to survive the Houston winter, but because of their incon­gruity with the unprotected green­ery, are also ghosts. A vestige of Texas living is turned to a frontyard mystery; a cloaked saint, a wraith referencing other photos, paintings, and sculpted forms with which you are familiar. Tiebout has succeeded in expressing in a quiet and simple manner, an impressive depth.

Dennis Carlyle Darling, Accent Gallery, Austin, Texas, June 6-30, 1985.
By April Rapier
In the context of the magazines (Esquire, Texas Monthly, and others) that regularly publish his photographs. Dennis Carlyle Darling's work seems on the surface to conform to the in­dustry standard: straightforward, clean, no hidden meanings likely to cause any trouble However, when they are grouped as an exhibition, or he is cut loose on a project (in other words, when he is working on an idea of his own choosing or more to his liking, hot on company time), a secret life to all the pictures emerges. The clear eye and cool head prevail. Yet the reasonably normal people who come before his camera are made sinister (far more so in the case of the Ku Klux Klan), or vulner­able, with weaknesses exaggerated. His subjects just give a bit more of themselves than perhaps they had in­tended. Yet there is no cause for alarm or regret, because everyone is dealt with fairly and honestly. It doesn't appear to matter whether Darling, who teaches photojournal­ism at the University of Texas. Austin, shoots candidly, is granted only a few minutes, or can take his time — he has the uncanny and unfailing ability to wait until the moment gets slightly, but not too, weird. The invasion begins then and doesn't quit until much is revealed.
One image that could be static ("Glass-Eyed Waiter. Rumania") defies the hazards and, because of the presence of a lone patron in the restaurant where the waiter works, is at once elegant and surprising. These images are orchestrated, but beyond that one feels the subject has relinquished all vestige of control and chosen to interact with the charismatic personality of the photog­rapher. Another ("Dusk on St. Hel­ena Island. South Carolina") portrays a young man, hands clasped as though in prayer, seemingly an uncharacteris­tically pious posture considering the sexy, shirtless torso and the curious but unreadable package — cigarettes! — tucked in the belt. Darling's acute, mostly cynical point of view (he doesn't have much interest in "turn­ing chicken shit to chicken salad." which is why he has continued in the photojournalistic tradition) rattles one's conventional notions of pack­aged truths.
Darling's travel documents are graced with his own distinctive at­titude. It is quite refreshing to see such pictures made by someone who isn't disoriented by travel; his visual approach is unswayed by the newness of his surroundings. In particular. "Bull Ring, Barcelona, Spain" shows a whirlwind of movement as people run and horses drag a dead bull. On­ly the bull's head is in focus, and the movement becomes a powerful memory. Another, "Millionaire's Club, |eykll Island, Georgia." shows the caretaker of a village where one sixth of the world's wealth once vacationed. He is in the empty dining room, and holds an old photograph of the club in its former glory, taken on its closing night. The windows stand out as the last remaining light in a vast, abandoned room. (The stories Darling tells about the pic­tures are marvelous. One can only hope that he will one day see fit to document them as well.)
Among other projects. Darling has pursued the KKK for many years. In one image entitled "God and Coun­try, Vidor, Texas," are two robed Klan members, one hooded, the other glaring into the camera. The maskless man has heavily lidded dark eyes and his claw-like hand grips his arm under the satiny white robe. He far more resembles a transvestite than a psychotic racist. The rally plat­form, set up in the middle of grass and trees, has the trashy feel of a used car lot, complete with strings of plastic triangle flags. It is overwhelm­ingly successful in its reduction of evil to absurd.
Two portraits ("Bill Emerson, for­mer Saturday Evening Post editor" and "Adela Nevarro in the bedroom of her great, great, great uncle, on the 115th anniversary of his death" show people with improbable ex­pressions: Mr. Emerson grimaces under an umbrella, eyes tightly shut; Ms. Nevarro seems far too grief-stricken over her distant relative Yet these emotions feel far more correct than the impenetrable camera smiles so often settled for by photogra­phers. "First Communion. Santa Rosa Ranchero. Mexico" and "Boy Dracuia. Carnivals. Venice" are ethereal images that must have oc­curred spontaneously. No amount of fussing or contrivance (or luck) could make them more beautiful or believ­able. Mr. Darling's pictures speak of a man who has the good sense not to believe wholeheartedly in too much, leaving every opportunity open to be experienced as something new.