What the media have done today is make a thing meaningless through its accessibility. And what I’m interested in is taking that accessibility and making meaning.
Executed in 2013, Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Don’t Shoot) packs a powerful message relevant to our time now more than ever before. An impeccable example of the artist’s sharp and illustrious visual expression, Untitled (Don’t Shoot) fuses distinct components to bestow a fresh outlook on the conventionality of commercialized texts and images. The black and white image of a man holding a miniature camera in his hands sports a menacing smile, presumably frozen in the moment just before he presses the shutter button. Abruptly and all at once, the viewer becomes the target of the pervading nature of the man’s gaze and Kruger’s iconic cherry-red and white text. The tag “DON’T SHOOT” stands front and center above the boxy camera, evoking a stark juxtaposition both enticing and provocative. The brief yet menacing all-capitalized phrase elicits the reactionary and bold nature of Kruger’s most celebrated works. Bordered by strong red and white lines, Untitled (Don’t Shoot) profoundly captures Kruger’s incessant desire to appropriate images for the purpose of critiquing the conventions of mass media and their associated advertisements.
The present lot demands attention instantly with its striking scale and loud block letters. Reminiscent of a LIFE magazine cover, Kruger composes Untitled (Don’t Shoot) in a familiar tabloid-esque publication. The work’s reduced chromatic palette of black, white, and red signals an emblematic nod to colors commonly affiliated with advertisements and newspapers. The stark contrast of black and white fills the background shading and shape of the man’s face, leveling the positive and negative space of the work. The cropped positioning of the photographer’s suspicious grin uncovers and enhances a sinister presence behind the camera, its lens trained at eyesight in a poignant twist characteristic of the artist’s masterful use of composition and perspective. Kruger’s deliberate placement of the camera designates as the subject of the photo any spectator that passes by.
An explosive fusion of language, photography and color, the present work demands active observation and directly bespeaks the artist’s multi-faceted fascination with critical channels of consumer culture: the circulation of image and text via mass media outlets. The play between the commercial and art worlds is perpetually at the heart of Kruger’s work, and here the tabloid headline and paparazzi style snapshot break down the boundaries between the viewer’s engagement with the piece. As a relatively recent work, Untitled (Don’t Shoot) made its first debut at the Modern Art Oxford’s solo exhibition in August 2014 and uniquely reinvigorates the meaning behind the conventions of mass media and text.
Born in 1945, the last year of the second World War, Kruger was launched into the inescapable post-consumer culture. Artists influenced by this commercialized environment, including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, produced revelatory works toying with the cognitive discrepancies between art and commerce, leaving an irreversible effect on artists ever since. Barbara Kruger attended Parsons School of Design in 1966 and later secured positions at Mademoiselle magazine and Condé Nast Publications where she became deeply aware of the viral agenda and structure of consumer culture. Her experience working as chief ad designer influenced her deployment of appropriated images following the publication of her book Pictures/Readings in 1979. The final product resulted in mechanically reproduced or manipulated photographs overlaid with declarative word captions. In a conversation with W. J. T Mitchell, Kruger claims that “what the media have done today is make a thing meaningless through its accessibility. And what I’m interested in is taking that accessibility and making meaning” (W. J. T. Mitchell and B. Kruger, "An Interview with Barbara Kruger," Critical Inquiry, vol. 17, no. 2, 1991, pp. 434-48). Kruger garnered supreme success with her signature image of white-on-red image-based text while working at the same time as other thriving postmodern artists such as Jenny Holzer, Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman.
Suffused with elemental layers of images and text, Untitled (Don’t Shoot) stands as an iconic example of Kruger’s distinguishable and sensational visual language. Her stylistic borrowings of collage and text commemorate the systematic tendencies of cultural edifices of power while spattering provocative suspense that captures an oft-distracted audience. In her cunning fusion of advertising techniques and formulaic wording, Kruger impedes the familiar and viral language of mass media with impactful meaning. Untitled (Don’t Shoot) both cements Kruger’s role as a master among feminist postmodern artists and continues to capture the cultural zeitgeist in almost prophetic ways.