"I'm just looking." It's the early 1980s, and a sleek, perfectly chic woman in a clingy dress with de rigueur shoulder pads is responding to an inquiring shop clerk. She glides in and among the consumer goods and the shiny, reflective surfaces of a high-end mall.
I'm just looking. The phrase is at once an apology and an assertion of consumerist autonomy. She holds tightly to her purse as she gazes longingly—a strange dance of spending power and desire. She floats through a maze of lingerie, jewelry, homewares and other items, sneaking glances, furtive and overt, at men she sees—another kind of shopping. I'm just looking. The woman is defined by the fact that she looks. But at some point while watching Judith Barry's video "Casual Shopper" (1980–81), a shift happens. "Just looking" becomes a condition, a state of being that defines both the video's protagonist and us as viewers.
Much of the work in The Deconstructive Impulse: Women Artists Reconfigure the Signs of Power, 1973–1991 at the Nasher Museum of Art arises from an imperative to question and clarify a visually saturated culture, a pushing-back against visually constructed terms of identity and power by revealing and fragmenting them. While each artist in the exhibition takes up these challenges in a different way, the show represents ways in which the critical theory that drove some of these questions was expressed through art that dealt with social identity, politics, sex and consumer culture. The idea that art can also be theory, can include text, that art can quote popular culture, that, indeed, art can self-consciously appropriate itself as a means of (as the exhibition title tells us) reconfiguring signs of power, is to some extent a general tenet of postmodernism.
What has been perhaps less clear is that the majority of the early practitioners of this approach were women. In this way, The Deconstructive Impulse serves as a corrective history.
Martha Rosler's black-and-white video, "Semiotics of the Kitchen" (1975), is a perfect example of art infused with cultural theory. "Semiotics" refers to the study of signs and symbols, and Rosler imposes the rigorous term onto the domestic space of the kitchen. With Saturday Night Live-worthy deadpan delivery, Rosler stares into the static camera and delivers a monotonous ABCs of kitchen utensils, holding up a pan and uttering "pan" as she mimes the item's utilitarian function. However, beneath the obvious comedy of Rosler's performance is a seething feminist rage. As she demos one kitchen item after another, it would seem that she is also giving the viewer subtle and not-so-subtle cues as to how these tools might be used as implements of violence.
The Deconstructive Impulse puts lesser-known artists like Rosler alongside art world luminaries such as Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Louise Lawler and Cindy Sherman, allowing us to think about some of these artists in new ways. Barbara Kruger's "Untitled (When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook)" (1985) is a vertical triptych in her signature style, a blown-up black-and-white photograph, in this instance, the found image of a ventriloquist dummy's head, overlaid with the title text in block letters, outlined with a bold red metal frame. The red element in this work is of a completely different order than the black-and-white photograph it frames. Red means something here—an overlay of significance onto a black-and-white world, as if the visual world were a form of text, a textbook of sorts, for which Kruger's red frame is the equivalent of a highlighter pen, wielded by the artist to underscore particularly inflammatory passages.
The Deconstructive Impulse is divided into six thematic sections: "Woman's Experience," "Institutional Critique," "Masquerade," "Appropriation," "Mass Media" and "Fashion." On one hand, this strategy of conceptual fracturing resonates with the deconstructive ethos of the exhibition. However, these thematic groupings tend to narrow the frames of reception for the work on view. Most of the works embody all of these themes. I actively worked to avoid the labeling as I made my way through the galleries—and in so doing I was able to experience the exhibition as a whole, with a complex interweaving of themes and approaches throughout.
An example of a work that addresses several of the show's themes is Lorna Simpson's "Stereo Styles" (1988), which easily speaks to all six areas. The work consists of 10 black-and-white Polaroid prints, framed and displayed in a grid of two lines of five. Each photograph displays the image of a woman's shoulders and head, taken from the back. In each case she wears an identical white, loose, sleeveless dress that drapes in a manner reminiscent of a classical Grecian gown. Each image is identical, with the sole variation being hairstyle. Through a continuum of encoded hair styles, this single woman reads as 10 different women, for in some fundamental way, these variant configurations of hair reconfigure our perception of "who she is." Everything we know, or assume we know, about this woman (these women?) arises from the meanings and typology we might attribute to her style of hair. Along the center line of the photographic grid formation, Simpson displays 10 black plaques with white engraved script, allocating possible terms that we might diagrammatically use to link type to style: "Daring," "Sensible," "Severe," "Long and Silky," "Boyish," "Ageless," "Silly," "Magnetic," "Country Fresh," "Sweet."
As with most of the works on view in The Deconstructive Impulse, Simpson's could, and pretty much should, be read in multiple ways. "Stereo Styles" raises questions about identity and visual appearance, here specifically tied to African-American women's hair styling. Simpson achieves this through a strategy of appropriated forms, incorporating aesthetic signifiers of black-and-white fine art photography, minimalism and even brandishing the gestural mastery of Abstract Expressionism—the stark black flourishes of hair against the void white space communicate in a manner traceable to the paintings of Franz Kline. The fact that one of these styles might be inventoried under the rubric of "Country Fresh" is a good indication that Simpson also sees the absurdity of these categories.
Indeed, humor is a consistent tactic, seen in even the most scathing critiques throughout The Deconstructive Impulse. Lynn Hershman's Tourette's-like repetitions of video clips from the Wonder Woman television series, Laurie Simmons' dollhouse perched atop Rockettes-perfect dancing legs, or even within the angst-saturated dramas of Carrie Mae Weems' stark photographs—there is a self-conscious embrace of the ludicrous, earthbound jabs at the high seriousness of art itself, recognizing the ever-present "artifice" (which is to say the constructedness) of "art" and other meaning-producing forms of consumer culture.
In 1985, a cadre of anonymous artists formed the subversive feminist action group the Guerrilla Girls. Armed with Molotov cocktails of truth, they cultivated an art-as-consciousness-raising campaign, art-as-protest, postering the art world to reveal its chauvinism with a blend of humor and cold, hard statistics. In their original press release statement, they declared, "Simple facts will be spelled out; obvious conclusions can be drawn." It is apt that The Deconstructive Impulse opens with a Guerrilla Girls poster. The exhibition evolves from the hard-hitting "simple facts and obvious conclusions" of this still-vital work to Adrian Piper's conceptually nuanced charcoal drawings on and in response to supercharged newsprint pages of The New York Times. As part of a series titled Vanilla Nightmares, Piper drew images of oppressed bodies atop articles about South African apartheid ("Vanilla Nightmares #13 (1986)) and medicalized racism ("Vanilla Nightmares #19" (1988)). Now brown and crisp with age, these works function as artifacts, fragile documentation of the artist's response on those particular days, at those historical moments. By turning the daily paper into drawings—art objects—Piper guaranteed their archival protection. By signing and dating them she commodified them. And if there is any question as to whether Piper was indeed commodifying her own devastation and rage by turning it into fine art, consider the copyright symbol she placed just to the left of her name.
The Deconstructive Impulse features 22 artists, each of whom on her own would merit a trip to the Nasher. It includes historical surprises, such as Sturtevant's 1973 painting "Warhol Marilyn," a shockingly early instance of appropriation, and the subtly illicit thrill of Barbara Bloom's interactive, veiled installation, "Three Girls," from The Gaze (1987). However, as a whole, The Deconstructive Impulse, which includes a substantial catalog with five essays, reframes and illuminates an era in art, the impact of which is felt to this day.