Staff Picks

What Barbara Kruger Teaches Us About Speaking Up

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Image: Hirshhorn Museum

Use your words, guys. Barbara Kruger does.

The 67-year-old artist based in New York is known for using big, bold text (often in Helvetica) to create sharp, witty mixed-media critiques about the world around her. Design jobs at Conde Nast and Mademoiselle have given her insight into American consumerism, mainstream media and the print world—and the opinionated artist reveals her thoughts freely and loudly in her work.

Her latest exhibit “Belief + Doubt” inhabits the entire lower floor of D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum, where it will run until December 2014. The show was commissioned for three years.

The lower-level lobby is covered floor-to-ceiling with black and red signage and bone-white text in all caps screaming for your attention. The effect is overwhelming: Short, blunt questions and statements sprawled across the walls achieve the intended goal of casting both belief and doubt in viewers.

The exhibit is splashy and eye-catching in a way that would make ad agencies fall in love, but here the impulse is the opposite of “Buy Me!” Instead, you get Kruger’s acerbic reminders about our material habits: “YOU WANT IT. YOU BUY IT. YOU FORGET IT.” On another wall, she borrows a proclamation from Malcolm X, “GIVE YOUR BRAIN AS MUCH ATTENTION AS YOU DO YOUR HAIR AND YOU’LL BE A THOUSAND TIMES BETTER FOR IT.”

Kruger introduces some thoughts about who leads our power structures, too. “WHO IS BEYONG THE LAW?” “WHOSE BELIEFS?” “WHOSE VALUES?” are all among the exhibit’s question—leaving you a little queasy as you contemplate the answers as they apply to our societal norms.

But she’s playful. This is after all, the same woman who showed off her wit in the 80s with work announcing, “I shop therefore I am.” In “Belief + Doubt,” she intersperses a few smiley face emoticons, tempering the intensity of her text.

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As you walk out of Kruger’s exhibit, you know you’ve heard her message loud and clear. And in a city as loud as D.C., that’s saying a lot.

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