6 June - 9 August 1998  National Gallery of Australia

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KrugerPony1Barbara Kruger   Plate from My pretty pony by Stephen King  1988  National Gallery of Australia, Gift of Orde Poynton Esq CMG 1995. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

Read My Lips showcases three important contemporary artists: Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman, whose work is at the centre of debates about the role and meaning of art today. Using formats familiar from advertising, film and elsewhere, the artists surprise the viewer with words and images that are new or strikingly out of context. The exhibition, curated by Kathryn Weir, juxtaposes three visually arresting bodies of work including prints, photographs and multiples from the late 1970s to the present and explores some of today's key aesthetic questions.

HolzerStupidJenny Holzer  Selection from The Living Series  1981  National Gallery of Australia. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

Jenny Holzer's posters and electronic LED signs accost the passerby in the street: glancing up in Times Square, New York, or Piccadilly Circus, London, to read that `Abuse of power comes as no surprise' brings us up short. Her texts cannot be immediately dismissed as advertising, politics or art. Taken by surprise, we allow her quirky Truisms and the quizzically emphatic Inflammatory essays under our guard.

Barbara Kruger uses slick advertising formats  black and white images overlaid with bands of red and white text  to deliver unfamiliar messages. She causes us to look again at the images that surround and shape us. Her terse juxtapositions  as seen on billboards, t-shirts and posters make us aware of the mechanisms of advertising, which both accosts and anaesthetises its audience.

Ironically, Kruger's images are now so well-known that they have in turn become a point of reference for the advertising industry.

Cindy Sherman's photographs explore the common pool of images underlying representations of women in film and fashion photography, fairy tales, high art and pornography. In about 300 works since 1975, she has photographed herself in an extraordinary range of costumes and contexts. Sherman makes us aware of the artifice of all images. She mocks our projected desires and revels in the unacceptable facets of femininity within the stereotypes.

Untitled film still #3Untitled film still #3  1977  National Gallery of Australia. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures.

Holzer, Kruger and Sherman use the techniques of mass communication and advertising to explore gender and identity. They use conventional formats in Cindy Sherman order to seize our attention, then deliver the unexpected. Jenny Holzer's LED signs and Barbara Kruger's billboards look as though they might be selling life insurance, lipstick or the latest model car. Cindy Sherman plucks images from our collective unconscious and dares us to look again at the narratives we create to understand them. Seduced by recognisable conventions of form, the viewer is then asked to reconsider his or her expectations. The works in Read My Lips by Holzer, Kruger and Sherman make striking visual statements about the nature of art, representation and power in contemporary society.