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Barbara Kruger Questions Los Angeles in Provocative New Frieze Project

Barbara Kruger's new mural at the NeueHouse Hollywood reads "Who buys the con?" as part of her "Untitled (Questions)" project. | Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy of NeueHouse Hollywood
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Get a glimpse into the contemporary art market through the eyes of one of its most controversial figures on "Artbound" S10 E5: Jeffrey Deitch's Los Angeles

You probably wouldn’t recognize Barbara Kruger’s signature mop of loose, reddish curls, but chances are, you’ve seen some of Kruger’s work around L.A. One of her long-running works lies on the wall of the Geffen Contemporary MOCA where, taking on the colors of the American flag, it asks a series of questions such as: “Who is beyond the law? Who is bought and sold? Who is free to choose?” Appropriate given the site’s proximity to the LAPD Metropolitan Detention Center and the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building.

If you have yet to chance on Kruger’s work, you’ll get a chance to this February as Kruger unveils her latest additions to her ongoing series, “Untitled (Questions),” as part of Frieze Week Los Angeles, an international art fair that’s back in the city for the second year.

The work is composed of a series of provocative questions in Kruger’s signature style of “pictures and words” as she described it. This year’s series is rendered in bright green and white, and will appear as murals, print and digital ads, digital billboards, and light pole banners throughout the city. Although most of them will be displayed around Hollywood and West Hollywood, a few will be peppered elsewhere in the city, some in English and Spanish, including The Forum in Inglewood, Downtown L.A.’s Union Station and the Banc of California Stadium.

The unmistakable ad-like artworks boldly ask, “Who buys low? Who sells high?” among other questions. This style is a familiar element in Kruger’s body of work, and still holds power even today, decades later.

This year’s bright green iteration grew out of last year’s Frieze Los Angeles, where the questions popped up as stickers as part of a series of works curated by Ali Subotnick. Passersby were confronted with questions like “Is there life without pain?” at several sites around the city, including the Paramount Studios backlot, where Frieze takes place, as well as Art + Practice and LAXART. This time around, Frieze Los Angeles Executive Director Bettina Korek, who organized the project, said she wanted the art to be spread out along Los Angeles.

Barbara Kruger's new mural at the NeueHouse Hollywood reads "Who buys the con?" as part of her "Untitled (Questions)" project. | Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy of NeueHouse Hollywood
Barbara Kruger's new mural at the NeueHouse Hollywood reads "Who buys the con?" as part of her "Untitled (Questions)" project. | Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy of NeueHouse Hollywood
A digital billboard at the Banc of California Stadium reads "Who buys low?" Who sells high?"as part of Barbara Kruger's "Untitled (Questions)" | Fredrik Nielsen, courtesy of the artist and Frieze
A digital billboard at the Banc of California Stadium reads "Who buys low?" Who sells high?"as part of Barbara Kruger's "Untitled (Questions)" | Fredrik Nielsen, courtesy of the artist and Frieze

“One of the things that was so unique about it was the way that we were able to connect with other sites in the city,” Korek said.  “And that's really at the heart of the spirit for Frieze Week.”

The questions in Kruger’s work are often focused on controversial topics such as reproductive rights, consumerism and the idea of success. Although Frieze organizers maintain that this year’s works are “indeterminate and open to subjective interpretation,” with a question like “Who buys low? Who sells high?” it wouldn’t be too much of a reach to read between the lines and see them as a commentary on some of the major issues facing Angelenos and the nation today, such as homelessness, gentrification, unequal access to higher education and immigration, to name a few.

Scroll around and take a look at the scene of Barbara Kruger's latest installation in this 360 video:

The Scene at “Who Buys the Con?"

At the NeueHouse in Hollywood, home to one of the project’s two gigantic murals, the question “Who buys the con?” is emblazoned on the building’s side.

NeueHouse staff stated that this particular mural likely refers to the “make believe of Hollywood, of movie magic and the classic tropes of living and working in the center of the storytelling industry,” but it very well could apply to any situation when people are expected to swallow lies from con artists. For Kenny Palmore, who walked by the mural, it makes sense that Kruger chose that particular question for a historic building in the heart of Hollywood.

“I think it’s just ‘who buys the bull----?’ It’s in the middle of Hollywood [so] it’s for people to think of all the bull----- that everyone’s selling, who’s buying it, you know?” he said. “Whether that’s in film or art or content or politics …. I think it applies everywhere, but I think this is a good place for it to be the epicenter of, the middle of Hollywood.”

His companion, Hawk Paramore, was more pragmatic, if a little too blunt: “There’s nothing but bull---- goin’ round here.”

That location awareness feels fundamental to the questions Kruger is asking Los Angeles. The questions “Who buys low? Who sells high?” and “Are you tired?” “Are you hungry?” feel particularly poignant in this city at a time when gentrification and homelessness are colliding. Considering the mural Kruger recently created for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s advocacy organization, Housing Is A Human Right, which reads “Who is housed when money talks?” it’s clear that these issues are on Kruger’s mind, even though she’s not telling her audience what position it should take. “Each question kind of balances directness and ambiguity and invite[s] the viewer to read into what is being asked,” Korek explained.

For Marina Martos Dabel of Kilroy Realty Corporation, which recently restored NeueHouse, the work invites us to reflect on “a very unequal distribution of haves and have nots right now …. I think it’s really about how does that structural dichotomy sustain itself.”

It’s ironic that even though the murals and digital billboards are so huge and the light pole banners are so numerous, many people ignore them completely because they assume they’re just ads, like Palmore did.

“I wasn’t going to take the time to step back and look because I figured it was just an advertisement. I’m even numb to it,” he said. “I lose the art because I’m so used to being advertised to. I’m so used to the con, I’m above it. I didn’t even look at the art.

In the end, by aiming it at no one in particular, it’s possible these questions are the most provocative of all, as they fit the nation as a whole: “Who do you think you are?” and “Where are you going?”

Barbara Kruger asks "Are you hungry?" on a digital billboard at the Banc of California Stadium as part of "Untitled (Questions)" | Fredrik Nielsen, courtesy of the artist and Frieze
1/2 Barbara Kruger asks "Are you hungry?" on a digital billboard at the Banc of California Stadium as part of "Untitled (Questions)" | Fredrik Nielsen, courtesy of the artist and Frieze
Barbara Kruger asks "Tienes hambre?" on a digital billboard at the Banc of California Stadium as part of "Untitled (Questions)" | Fredrik Nielsen, courtesy of the artist and Frieze
2/2 Barbara Kruger asks "Tienes hambre?" on a digital billboard at the Banc of California Stadium as part of "Untitled (Questions)" | Fredrik Nielsen, courtesy of the artist and Frieze

Check out the questions at these locations:

Top Image: Barbara Kruger's new mural at the NeueHouse Hollywood reads "Who buys the con?" as part of her "Untitled (Questions)" project. | Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy of NeueHouse Hollywood

Additional reporting by Jessica Flores

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