Modern Art Oxford provides a foil to the more traditional and historic collections in this university city. It shows modern and contemporary art, often of international quality, in the former square room and stores of Hanley’s City Brewery which was originally built in 1892 and now provides a number of different semi-industrial spaces that enables the Gallery to be quite flexible in what it shows.
The current exhibition on the work of American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger shows how well the different spaces can work. Kruger’s work is characterised by the use of bold graphics in photographs or in installations, investigating power, identity, and sexuality in popular culture today. Having studied at the Parsons School for Design under the photographer Diane Arbus, she worked for Conde Nast Publications, initially as a designer at Mademoiselle and then part-time as a picture editor at House and Garden, Aperture and other publications. Her training and experience in graphic design still influences her work today. She was part of the “Pictures Generation”, which included Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman, who manipulated images from the mass media in order to question and challenge their messages.
The reviews of the exhibition have been mixed and suggest that her work has not really moved on from the 1980’s. Laura Cumming in The Guardian says:
“She writes words on walls. We read them. That’s it. This has been Barbara Kruger’s laconic way of working for more than 40 years, and it has brought her international fame. Her art is terse, assertive, argumentative, pithy and always directed straight at your face.
“For her first major show in a British gallery in years, Kruger has assembled slews of exhortations, instructions, propositions, rejoinders and exclamations that appear with matching abruptness on the museum walls. They have the status of overheard speech, of shouts from the crowd or disembodied rhetoric, of urgings, rebukes, demands and counter-demands, and they work against each other all the time.”
Zoe Pilger in the Independent enjoys the video installations but says with regard to the main installation “The work has immediate visual impact. The word “immersive” is often bandied around in relation to installation; the artist’s goal of completely subsuming the viewer is rarely achieved, however. Kruger does achieve it – she uses the space to maximum effect. Most strikingly, an artificial wall has been built to emulate that of a church and the word “Joyful” is emblazoned across it, which feels more bullying than uplifting.” But overall “The problem with this exhibition is that it is simply not nuanced or original enough.
What it does show is the versatility of the gallery spaces which are able to house small photographic works from the 1980’s in one space, a major graphic installation and video works in others and in the café. A video of the installation work in progress can be seen here.
In contrast, across the town at the Ashmolean Museum, is an exhibition “Art Belongs to the People!”, displaying work by the two German artists, Joseph Beuys and Jörg Immendorff.
Curated by Norman Rosenthall and presented in collaboration with the Hall Art Foundation, this exhibition shows work from 1968 onwards when these artists were being provocative and challenging. Jörg Immendorff, for example, was involved in international protest movements, taking part in the anti-Vietnam war rallies, the Green movement and debate over the division of Germany.
While in a good location at the centre of the gallery, unfortunately the architecture of this double-height space overpowers the detail and vibrancy of the art, which is double and triple banked on the walls but with inadequate depth to stand back and view it properly from a distance. Some of the best views are from the upper floor looking down into the gallery. This serves to reinforce the importance of gallery design to to the setting of works of art and appreciation by the viewer.