Though many artists in the group were trained formally in traditional disciplines such as painting and sculpture, they elected to utilize their skills in unorthodox ways – re-examining composition, particularly within popular image production. The ready availability of cameras allowed artists to reconsider photography’s stance as an artistic medium, composing images with conceptual frameworks.
Influenced by the ubiquity of advertising and the highly saturated image culture of the United States, Pictures Generation artists produced work that itself often resembles advertising. In thus challenging traditional art forms that appear handcrafted, these artists situated themselves at the center of postmodern debates about authenticity and authorship while in the process creating art that is slick and has the appearance of mass production. Their works blur the lines between high art and popular imagery.
Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980)
Artwork description & Analysis: For Untitled Film Stills, Cindy Sherman began photographing herself staged in various scenes that appeared to be from classical Hollywood films: a girl arriving in the big city, a girl cooking over the stove, a girl in lingerie dressing herself. The stills seem recognizable, but are taken from no particular movie, mimicking typical cinematic angles, lighting, and dramatization to convey a sense of the familiar. Critics have commented on Sherman’s representation of females as “making strange” – forcing the viewer to be a more critical observer of the constructed re-representation, categorizing Sherman’s work as a feminist intervention. Sherman draws attention to the fact that a woman’s appearance is often associated with her identity: a woman is valued in society to be looked at. The film theorist Laura Mulvey established the term “male gaze” to illustrate the typical perspective of a filmgoer, who assumes the role of male subject. Taking the term from psychoanalysis, Mulvey surmised that vision works as a function of sexual and developmental drives, and male-directed films of the mid-20th century often served to place women in subjugated roles, relegating women to fetishized victims or villainous femmes fatales who were unable to be agents of their own destiny. Sherman’s reworking of these archetypes, as creator and character, interrupts the male gaze and re-establishes the women in the photographs as agents, while simultaneously complicating the relationship as she freezes herself in these multiple roles.
Gelatin silver print.
Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-1979)
Artwork description & Analysis: Birnbaum is one of the best-known Pictures Generation artists to work in video, specifically critiquing television. Her Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman examines the paradoxes implicit in the 1970s “Wonder Woman” television program by cutting up scenes from the show and reposing a disco song about the superhero. In the video, bursts of fire, meant to suggest the deconstruction of ideologies in television, open the piece. Birnbaum repeats TV sequences when character Diana Prince transforms into Wonder Woman, making the superhero appear as a wobbly music-box figurine, without her supposed strength.
Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) (1987)
Artwork description & Analysis: Kruger began her career in advertising – specifically, working in graphic design and layout at Conde Nast – and the juxtaposition of image and text in her work often speaks to her former training. In Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) two fingers hold a palm-sized card outward. The card itself is wiped of its original face, as Kruger has clearly set “I shop therefore I am” across the flat red surface. The viewer can probably deduce that the original image displayed a credit card, tying the new text to its appropriation. The statement “I shop therefore I am” links the excitement of sponsored consumerism and constructed female identity. As popular formats like films, ladies’ magazines, and department store advertisements dictate what is appropriately feminine and desirable, Kruger ironically turns the upbeat slogan against itself by displacing image from attractive arrangement. The interruption of bold text and bright crimson stop the viewer, forcing them to ask what representation and identity mean for women in a consumer society, and how advertising tries to shape this identity.