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.

Cindy Sherman

untitled film still #2, 1977 untitled, #98, 1982 untitled film still #14, 1978
untitled #204, 1989 untitled #168, 1989 untitled #190, 1989

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.

untitled #308, 1994

Barbara Kruger

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.
"I shop, therefore I am," 1987 "Your body," used as a political poster in 1989 "You are 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.

installation 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 heroine)

Kara Walker: Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey... (1997) Walker: 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.

Walker, untitled, 1999 Walker, untitled, 1996