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Women in Art has been a subject that has been present throughout most of the course of history, however, over these years, the object of the woman has changed in social, cultural and political meaning. Nowadays, modern-contemporary artists have been known to ‘attack’ the traditional values of women that more historical art has held a meaning that depicted the woman as an object, rather than a being; a submissive figure, rather than a dominant one.
Two examples of artists that have represented and conveyed socio-gender issues through art are Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman, whom, both by using various forms of print media such as photography have challenged and questioned the dominant ‘male’ influences in art, society and on women in general. Both have incorporated elements of post-modernism such as appropriation in their works, but moreover, it is the rather witty, dark humour and satirical statements that have made their work so notorious and confronting.
Krugers work addresses the cultural representations of power, identity and sexuality, and challenges the spectacles of stereotypes and cliches. Works such as "We have received orders not to move" and "You are not Yourself" shows how women are viewed through things such as mass-media. Because the female body is so matter of fact in its objectification and commoditisation that it has become one of the oldest clich’s in advertising and through Kruger’s work of often violent imagery of the female form has exposed viewers of her work to the fact that we are spectators of our bodies as they become carriers for and that are transmuted by gender illustrations of social location and inequality.
The reason that her work is as successful as it is can be partly blamed upon her initial career objective of entering the media arts field. She began a stint as a graphic designer for the popular magazine Mademoiselle which she later quit to pursue sculpture. However, her more popular works have the deep influence of her time spent in graphic arts as she had acquired a skill in being able to capture an audience’s attention due to her experience with advertising and publicity, her brazen photomurals being displayed not only in museums and galleries, but in open, public displays such as billboards and bus stops.
Her trademark artworks, proclaiming forward ‘in-your-face’ messages on women’s rights and issues of power are dominated and emphasised by the use of black white and red. By using red as a contrasting colour, it instantaneously creates an unsettling clash with the flatness of the monochromes, eliciting a sense of anger from within the work itself onto the viewer, creating almost a sense of discomfort and fear into whoever may be viewing Kruger’s work.
With regards to You are not Yourself and its connection with gender issues and feminism, Kruger has successfully managed to create a work that invokes a sense of terror or alarm. A technique characteristic of Kruger is that she has appropriated an image from perhaps a magazine or a photograph of a woman and has transformed it into a rather disturbing image by overlaying the effect of a shattered piece of glass, fragmenting the original image. The words “You are Yourself” have been purposely made larger than the more hidden, reclusive “not” by having a bold “you are yourself”, Kruger has re-created a somewhat ‘motivational’ and positive statement expressing a woman’ freedom…. However, this is not so, as by cleverly placing the “not”, the slogan has been transfigured from what appeared to be an uplifting saying to “You are not Yourself” which expresses the restrictions that are placed upon women in society to say, ‘be who they want to be’.
The letter themselves have been individually cut and pasted to resemble a ransom note, once again communicating an impression of apprehension.
The work, "We have received orders not to move", like "You are not Yourself", is representative of the restrictions that are bound upon women in today’s society. In this work, Kruger is attacking the general stereotype of the fact that women are seen as ‘powerless’ due to the fact that we live in a primarily patriarchal society that is principally dominated by men. Once again she has managed to create a fairly confrontational work by using the image of a woman, who appears to be uncomfortably hunched over with many pins and needles inserted in her body. The pins and such create the concept of being unable to move with the woman herself being unable to make any movement due to the fact that she is pinned down. By using blacks and whites along with the bold text, the overall simplicity of the work has in itself highlighted its message of women’s oppression.
Like Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman’s works are also heavily related around the concept of gender issues in society and feminism. She primarily uses the media of photography and, in similar respects to the Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura; she frequently incorporates herself into her own images. When she initially began to explore her ideas and concepts, it was at a time when the art world was just beginning to focus on the relationship between the existence of a mass media society and how the implements of this society such as television, film, and photography could be used to further reinforce and redefine the icons of the rapidly expanding popular culture.
Sherman has expanded her work beyond her recreation of film stills, one of her best known series of works, and used her technique of photographic parody to comment on some of the influences of gender stereotype such as the magazine centrefold, fashion magazine spreads, advertising, childrens literature, formal portraiture as well as mannequins. Over the course of her career, her work has progressed into being more aggressive in its tone and more explicit in its messages.
Untitled #188 and Untitled #61 are both reflectant of the way that Sherman exposes the stereotypical view of women as being a ‘sex-object’ as her mockery and condemnation of her views on the female stereotype has become more and more pronounced, her biographer, Rosalind Krauss, has described it as the erotic fetish that clouds every media image of the female. Along with representing feminist issues in her work, Sherman also incorporates an element characteristic of the postmodernist movement known as ‘double-coding’ whereby messages conveyed in particular works may be contradictory in their meaning. Also, she blurs the boundaries of gender, confronts the division between original and copy, nigh art and popular cultures using a method that lies between representation and reality.
From Sherman’s ‘Disaster’ series, Untitled #188 features a ‘blow-up’ doll twisted upon various debris. The doll itself is symbolic of the sexual side of woman - the fact that the doll itself is naked atop of the rubbish and the overall set-up of the shot can be similarly linked to something like a rape scene, its overall representation is the violence that is inflicted upon females. The semi-deflated state of the doll and the fact that it is cast haphazardly amongst a pile of rubbish shows that it has been abandoned and is no longer of use. Sherman has challenged the audience on social and gender issues whilst still managing to question the perceptions of reality. The work itself it’s confronting in a sense due to the appalling state of the deflated ‘sex-toy’, but at the same time, it has a slight humorous undertone about it.
Untitled #61 is fairly similar in content to Untitled #188. It too has focused on the stereotype of the portrayal of women in a sexual context. This time, Cindy Sherman has used the object of a mannequin as being the central focus of the photograph. This too, is a fairly confronting work as we find the mannequin naked, in an awkward position, staring directly into the audience, emitting an unsettling and unnerving atmosphere. Like Kruger, Sherman is making an attack upon the values and perceptions that society today holds that are primarily related to women due to the influence such as various aspects of the media such as television and radio and certain areas of pop culture such as what is generated throughout magazines.
In conclusion, both Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman have communicated ideas about cultural issues, in this case gender and feminism, through a variety of techniques and media which has resulted in the production of work that challenges values and stereotypes spawned by elements of today’s society and that invites the audiences into questioning modern day perceptions of such contemporary issues.
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