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The current show at Sprüth Magers gallery, Eau de Cologne, has a title that might seem like a play on the words (that’s what I initially thought), but it is actually quite straightforwardly unironic. It is simply the name of the art magazine published by Monika Sprüth between 1985 and 1989 that presented interviews with and essays about contemporary German and American women artists. When Sprüth first opened her own gallery in the city of Cologne in 1983, she was championing the practices of the then-emerging artists Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Rosemarie Trockel against the tide of the male artists overwhelming the art scene. Now she is able to take a few victory laps, which she does with this show.
The work of Barbara Kruger, with its black-and-white photographic images overlaid with declarative statements in Futura Bold typeface on black, white or red text bars, is as distinctive for its graphic qualities as it is for its directness of message. From the mid-1990s, Kruger began producing large-scale, immersive works, many of which have been exhibited in public spaces such as train stations, municipal buildings, billboards, and buses. Confronting viewers with bold imagery and short, pithy statements, her work brings power into question by using still images to mobilise the polemics of her textual provocations. Kruger's choice of aphoristic language will often point to the constructions of identity, both collective and individual, through her use of the pronouns 'our', 'we', 'you', 'I' and 'they'.
Following her graduation from Parsons School of Design in New York in 1966, Kruger worked as a graphic designer for Condé Nast. It was around this time that she produced her earliest works, in the form of large-scale woven wall hangings fashioned from diverse materials such as ribbon, feathers, yarn, sequins, and beads. For Kruger, the use of these materials was a way of reclaiming and re-evaluating craft's relegation to a position lower than that of so-called fine art. Amongst the work produced during this time were items sewed, crocheted, and painted in high key colour, combined with erotic and suggestive objects.
In 1976, Kruger relocated to Berkeley, California. While there she taught at the University of California, finding inspiration in the theoretical writings of Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin. After a brief hiatus from art making, she took up photography in 1977, taking shots of architectural exteriors before pairing them with text-based ruminations on the buildings' occupants. 1979 saw the publication of her artist book, Picture/Readings. Kruger's pre-digital monochrome images of this period, commonly referred to as her 'paste ups', display the impact of her work as an editorial designer for magazines.
It was during the early 1980s that Kruger made the transition to her much celebrated practice of collaging, as we now know it today. Her method consists of developing compositions digitally on a computer, and later transposing the billboard-sized images on to various surfaces. Kruger's 1989 poster for the Women's March on Washington, in support of legal abortion, features the face of a woman bisected into negative and positive exposures on either side. The accompanying text, 'Your body is a battleground', signals the heated contestation around women's reproductive rights that had heightened in the wake of new anti-abortion laws. The following year Kruger deployed the same slogan for a billboard commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio.
Many of the artist's slogans such as 'I shop therefore I am'—a play on philosopher Rene Descartes' famous statement 'I think, therefore I am' (Cogito, ergo sum)—evince her interest in feminist identity politics as they relate to patriarchy and capitalism: both structures of power and dominance so often internalised and propagated by their victims.
In 2005, as part of the 51st Venice Biennale, Kruger installed a digitally printed vinyl mural across the façade of the Italian pavilion, dividing it into three parts—green (left), red (right), white (centre). In both Italian and English, the words 'power' and 'money' crept up the portico's columns. On the left wall there was the statement, 'Pretend things are going as planned,' while 'God is on my side; he told me so' fills the right. That same year, Kruger received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale.
Kruger's works are in major museum collections worldwide, including the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.
Louise Lawler completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts at Cornell University in 1969 before establishing a practice which led her to become part of the group of artists known as The Pictures Generation. This also included artists such as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Sherrie Levine. Lawler continues to live and work in New York.
Lawler photographs other works of art, concentrating on their setting, the way in which they are presented, and their methods of creation. The resultant works are often considered to be conceptual and address the art world and its establishments by questioning what factors constitute and define a piece of art. Her oeuvre offers a behind the scenes look at the happenings of the art world through her photographs at art fairs, galleries, collectors homes, and auction houses such as Christie’s.
The artist uses her method of photography to comment on the status of material goods as measures of financial and cultural wealth and employs the work of other artists as her subject matter to bring to attention the difficulty of originality in contemporary society. Lawler’s works challenge the notions of authenticity and authorship.Solo exhibitions of the artist’s work have included Adjusted at Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany (2013); No Drones at Sprüth Magers, Berlin (2015); Fitting at Metro Pictures at Metro Pictures, New York (2011); and Later at Yvon Lambert, Paris (2010). Lawler has exhibited at major institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Museum of Art, Oslo; and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Lawler has presented work at two Whitney Biennials.
Although in Cindy Sherman's photographs she acts as her own model, stylist, hairdresser and photographer, the American artist's works are hardly self-portraits. Sherman adopts different identities each time, fashioning herself as various characters and archetypes. Through the staged artifice of her photographs, Sherman conveys femaleness and identity as unfixed fabrications determined by social and cultural norms.
After graduating from The State University of New York at Buffalo in 1976, Sherman quickly attracted attention with her 'Untitled Film Stills' (1977–1980). Mimicking the aesthetics of 1950s and 1960s Hollywood films, B-movies and European arthouse films, the 69 black-and-white photographs are fictitious stills from movies that never existed. In the images, Sherman 'plays' a stereotypical female character such as a housewife in Untitled Film Still #35 (1979) or a young girl just arrived in the big city in Untitled Film Still #21 (1978).
Sherman's interest in the visual codes of femaleness—with attention to fashion, makeup, demeanour and stereotypes—continued through 'Centerfolds', a series of 12 horizontal prints commissioned by Artforum in 1981. In reference to the centrefolds in men's erotic magazines and a pervasive history of consuming the female body through images, the artist photographed herself in passive positions, either lying or kneeling. The images were interpreted by some critics as showing women in vulnerable situations, which led Artforum to reject them. Sherman directly followed the series with her four 'Pink Robes' photographs, for which she posed as a woman covering her body with a pink robe and gazing challengingly at the camera, refusing objectification.
Sherman's consideration of the relationship between identity and mass media has associated her with the Pictures Generation, a group of young American artists from the 1970s and 1980s that includes Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, Laurie Simmons and Richard Prince. Questioning notions of authorship, the Pictures Generation artists were inspired by cultural critics and French philosophers like Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes, the last of whom famously declared 'The Death of the Author' in his 1967 manifesto. Barthes denied the possibility of original authorship, arguing that any creative output is, in fact, a derivative of others' work. Sherman—acting as both the author and subject throughout her practice—similarly does not see her artworks as shots taken of her, but instead as reproductions of ideas and archetypes.
Reacting to a mounting market demand for her photographs, from the mid-1980s some of Sherman's photographic series took a darker turn, with the artist increasingly disguising herself to the point of being unrecognisable in them. The images in 'Fairy Tales' (1985) and 'Disasters' (1986–1989), for instance, are inhabited by gory remnants of a violent crime or the aftermath of unknown disasters featuring body parts, vomit and blood. Part of the series, Untitled #169 (1987), features a close-up of a man's head lying on the ground, surrounded by snow and shattered glass. The creature, though completely unrecognisable, is Sherman, transformed with prosthetics and wigs. Conversely, in 'Sex Pictures'—a later series, from 1992—the artist is physically absent from the photographs and instead populates the images with anatomical mannequins arranged into vulgar and disturbing sexual positions.
Made around the same time as 'Disasters' and 'Sex Pictures', the series 'History Portraits' (1988–1990) saw Sherman borrowing from European portraiture traditions to cast solemn-looking figures in absurdly artificial settings. Untitled #228 (1990) is a full-length portrait of Sherman dressed as Judith—a biblical figure who beheaded the Assyrian general Holofernes to save her people, and a popular subject in Renaissance and Baroque paintings. While Sherman composed the portrait with references to Western art historical conventions—such as the use of textiles to adorn the background—she also willingly disclosed the artificiality of the scene: Holofernes' head, upon closer inspection, is more like a Halloween mask than a real head; the fabrics, though enhanced through the camera, are cheap buys from thrift stores. In another image, Untitled #216 (1989), the artist's awkwardly attached prosthetic breast reveals the portrait as a staged scene. Through her undisguised use of props and prosthetics, Sherman exposes the artificiality of identity construction; the ideas of identity, just like portraits, are always mediated.
In more recent years, Sherman has confronted the obsession with youth in contemporary culture. 'Society Portraits' (2008) shows her as various women of wealth whose heavy make-up and surgical enhancement hint at attempts to conceal and slow down the process of ageing. In another series from 2016, Sherman portrays ageing movie stars styled as they had been in their youth, criticising the impossible demands on women to maintain their youthful appearances.
Exhibiting since the 1970s, Sherman has recently held solo and group exhibitions at Sprüth Magers, London (2018); The Broad, Los Angeles (2016); Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (2015); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2015); National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (2013); Tate Modern, London (2012); and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2012) among others. In 2012 The Museum of Modern Art, New York, organised a major retrospective of her work that travelled to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Walker Art Center and Dallas Museum of Art. Sherman's photographs have been included in numerous international exhibitions, notably the Whitney Biennial (1995, 1993, 1991, 1985, 1983); the Biennale of Sydney (1990, 1984); and documenta 7 (1982). In 2013 she co-curated an exhibition for the 55th Venice Biennale.
The group show Eau de Cologne at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles features work from the late-1970s to 2016 by Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Cindy Sherman and Rosemarie Trockel. The exhibition at Sprüth Magers’ recently-opened Los Angeles gallery is a follow-up to its predecessor in Berlin last year. It sheds light on key topics in these artists’ works, but also the specific history of the gallery and its connection to these important female figures of an art that subtly addresses women’s roles in very different ways.
All five artists in the exhibition showed with Monika Sprüth during the earliest years in Cologne and have maintained close ties to the gallery since the early 1980s. Besides the exhibiting artists, the three issues of Eau de Cologne magazine that were published by Monika Sprüth between 1985 and 1989 featured portraits, interviews, conversations and essays with many other contemporary German and American women artists and figures associated with the art world at the time. The second issue of the magazine from 1987 has a work by Barbara Kruger on the cover and served as the basis for the current exhibition’s invitation poster design. Both the magazine and the three exhibitions at Monika Sprüth Gallery in 1985, 1987 and 1993 served as reference points for this show.
Barbara Kruger developed the photo series presented in this show in 1996 as a draft for her contribution to the British magazine Dazed & Confused. Her visual language draws from the world of graphic design and uses specific colors and text fragments familiar from advertising and everyday visual culture. For this exhibition, the page layout from the magazine was rearranged and recompiled, presenting it here as a new wall piece Untitled (Never Enough) (2016).
Louise Lawler’s wallworks Andy in L.A. (adjusted to fit) (2004/2016) and (Bunny) Sculpture and Painting (adjusted to fit) (1999/2016) are part of a series of works in which she adapts earlier images and motifs to the architecture of the space available to present the work. The installation view of a Whitney Museum exhibition showing Jeff Koons’ Rabbit (1986) and Peter Halley’s The Acid Test (1992) raises the issue of art’s reception through modes of viewing and the presentation methods used in private contexts, public museums and the market that determine the artwork itself.
Rosemarie Trockel draws her formal vocabulary from materials commonly associated with female activity such as wool or ceramics. No longer knitted with machines or by hand, her recent 'wool pictures' are created by wrapping loose strands of yarn around the canvas in stripes, touching on the larger painting discourse. The wool works are complemented by sculptures that address the concept of the readymade and design, but also the clichéd 'female' environment from which she derives her approach: Device (2015) and Landscapian shroud of my mother (2008), two sofas made of ceramic and steel, are shown along with Chateau en espagne (2012 and 2015), two folding beds mounted to the wall.
Cindy Sherman’s Murder Mystery (1976), a precursor to her film stills, is a series of black and white photographs presented in the exhibition that examines the archetypical roles ascribed to females in film. In her lesser-known series Broken Dolls, Sherman creates a self-portrait that can also be understood in terms of the same subject matter. In the new triptychs, Sherman cites her own work in the form of portraits with partly abstract, bizarre shots that highlight Sherman’s interest in the absurd, ugly and grotesque.
Jenny Holzer works with materials drawn from ordinary, everyday contexts and the aesthetic of advertisements. Her visual vocabulary appears in the form of everyday 'truisms' and political texts like those seen on her 60 hand-painted enamel plaques (1980-82). These texts also appear on LED signs and granite benches, where the specific use of language strikes a stark contrast with one of sculpture’s most traditional materials. Her canvas work Trust visions that don’t feature buckets of blood (1983-84), was created in collaboration with New York graffiti artist Lady Pink as graffiti art itself was just starting to emerge. It also reveals ties to Holzer’s well-known political works.
The key motifs and themes connecting these different positions are forms of political engagement, messages and questions that revolve around the individual in society from a female perspective. They reflect a discourse that has been ongoing in the history of the gallery from its beginnings in the 1980s to the present day.
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