Questioning Identity: Cindy Sherman,
Barbara Kruger and Kara Walker
The three artists in this unit might
not immediately seem to go together but they do raise similar questions
about identity and about women - as subjects and as artists. Each
one is interested in costumes and the idea of "dressing up." Barbara
Kruger may be the most difficult to see in terms of this idea of "dressing
up" in costumes, unless you consider that she is dressing up the medium
of photography and advertising. Cindy Sherman's form of dressing
up seems to be the opposite--dressing down, making herself look horrifying
and grotesque. Kara Walker is dressing up in a more conceptual and
autobiographical sense, telling us that she wants to be the heroine.
All three of them implicate the viewer in a way that becomes more characteristic
of art in the postmodern era although they do not do it in the same way.
For Kruger and Sherman, the issue of the gaze and the voyeur is central;
for Walker, the viewer is thrust into the work whether or not he or she
wants to be there.
film still #2, 1977
film still #14, 1978
Sherman's scenarios, from movies
to dismembered dolls, are most obviously not examples of things she (or
anyone) would want to be or to emulate. If she is dressing up in
reverse, so to speak, why? Perhaps she wants to suggest the impossibility
of turning the old into the new, or perhaps she believes in the magical
powers of representation: that if we visualize our fears and the horrors
of life, we may be able to cope with them. Or perhaps the answer
is more obvious: that Sherman plays games of dressing up, and in her case,
dressing as the director, producer and actress in her fictional "movies"
and her staged photographs, in order to centralize the question of identity.
As I think about Sherman, it seems to me that the most important thing
to note about her art is that she puts herself into the role of voyeur,
gazing on things which should not be seen, and the role of the object of
that gaze. Although I like the idea that her art reflects an ongoing
narrative about female identity, from victim/captive to artist/creator,
eventually I find that what I really think is that she wants to foreground
the question of art as a fictional reflection of a reality which is also
fiction. Everything in her art, after all, is invented and generally
at least once removed from reality. A film still, for example, is
not really a film still since the movie never existed. That she does
this with female subjects (herself) is not inherently related to feminist
issues so much as the issue that in the domain of art, any subject is valid
for the female artist and that representations of women in art are likewise
invented, usually to conform to male fantasies, as opposed to female.
Art in the late 20th century becomes
more confrontational, although this confrontation is often staged for the
purpose of engaging the viewer in a more active way than art had done traditionally.
Barbara Kruger, whether plastering the walls of the gallery with her work
or creating individual posters, assaults the viewer with her words: always
shouting "you" or "I," she makes it impossible for the viewer to ignore
the work or the fact that someone with a sensibility that is similar to
that of the viewer has created the work.
therefore I am," 1987
used as a political poster in 1989
not yourself," 1984
Kurger's work speaks to several
themes of the late 20th century: the interrelationship between words and
images (how words challenge our understanding of a photograph and the reverse,
how the image challenges our understanding of the words), female identity
and the way language and pictures communicate expected roles and behaviors,
and the increasing breakdown of boundaries between spheres of life that
used to be separate.
at the Mary Boone Gallery, 1994
One dynamic in Kruger's work which
is particularly interesting is that she begins by appropriating an image
from the public context--popular media--but she essentially returns it
to that context as well, not only in the visual parallels between her work
and popular media, but also in the media she uses to distribute her work--posters,
billboards, t-shirts, shopping bags. Another type of return, not
necessarily engineered by her, is the emergence of advertising and political
imagery which has clearly borrowed from her visual format, but is neither
her work nor associated with the messages or program of her work.
It is ironic that Kruger’s work, despite the use she makes of the personal
pronoun "I" or "we," never really seems to assert Kruger's presence as
Barbara Kruger, which is why it can be used in this way by other people
and groups. And although Kruger is given to the exploration of the
social victimization of women, the authorial distance imposed by Kruger
can bring more attention to the wordplay and game aspects of her work than
to the issue of victimization. We might also note that Kruger's
use of images from the public context is not entirely different from Sherman's
use of invented images--both artists are creating commentary about the
boundaries between what we see in art and what we see in the real world.
Kara Walker: To Be and to Kill (the
Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey...
Darkytown Rebellion, 2001
One of the things that Walker tells
us early in her interview is how much she thrilled to Gone with the
Wind – that the romance, the melodrama, the epic sweep of the novel
was titillating, as it was meant to be, and to her surprise, she found
that she both wanted to be the heroine and to kill the heroine. That
combination of opposing responses might be said to characterize her artwork,
in both its subject matter and technique. She herself notes that
her work is about “power exchanges.” She successfully translates
this idea of power exchange into a medium which involves the projection
of colored light onto walls covered with her cut-out silhouettes.
The silhouette, the main ingredient of Walker’s art, not only foregrounds
the issue of black and white; it does it in a perverse way: the silhouette
is made by blocking the passage of light. Although we might want
to limit our understanding of the silhouette to this relationship between
solid and space, Walker has made it more complicated. Traditionally,
the silhouette was made from a projected shadow. In Walker’s case,
she has invented her subjects, so her silhouettes are not the projections
of real people. But in the context of the finished work, there are
projected shadows–those of the people who have come to look at the work
and who thereby become actors or characters in Walker’s invented fantasy.
Again, as Walker stated during her interview, there are several layers
of projections in her work: fact is projected into fiction, and vice versa;
shadows of spectators are projected onto silhouettes; and the outsider
(the spectator) is projected into the work as an involved or implicated
subject. Finally, the work is about the projection of stereotypes--
a rhetorical device which facilitates communication even as it diminishes
diversity--into a setting which asks you to confront these stereotypes
and perceive their suppressed details and variegated meanings.