Jenny Holzer’s semantic artworks—small and large
Jenny Holzer chooses her words carefully in a double-header on West 25th Street. “Night Feed” at Yvon Lambert and “Archive” at Cheim and Read both use scale for impact, while intentional selection and omission provide surprise and mystery in her world of words.
Holzer does her own data mining in “Archive,” a series of paintings that expose recently released, classified government documents, available through the Freedom of Information Act. In a Warholian, frieze-like presentation, confidential documents are distorted through enlargement and screened on linen with large portions of the information blacked out for security reasons. The viewer is left to decide what is implied through what is denied.
In the small gallery “HAND Yellow White” (2006) shows documents so blackened they could be progeny of Allan McCollum’s ”Surrogates,” where the nothing can be a stand-in for everything. The only discernable information is “for official use” along the bottom adding a sense of gravity and frustration.
“IDEALIST Yellow White” (2006) represents an early document from 1954 and relates to Alice Neel and communist party membership. An eerie physical description of the suspect follows and reveals our government’s techniques are nothing new.
A memo from the FBI in 2001 titled “PHOENIX Green White” (2006) speaks of flight school enrollment by foreigners. This simple memo resonates in the wake of 9/11 with its failure to alert.
Sixteen panels of text shock with audacity. “WISH LIST Black” (2006), a document titled “Alternative Interrogation Techniques (Wish List),” speaks of a desire to use “Phone book strikes,” “Low voltage electrocution,” “Closed fist strikes,” as well as “Muscle fatigue inducement.” The memo goes on to justify the wish list as brainstorming.
A mottled series of five panels looking like bruises and decay and titled “BROKEN JAW Brown” (2006) begins, “I was on guard when the guy had his jaw broken” and haltingly describes what happened through gaps and text. The victim states “there was a knock at the door they arrested my brother and also my father.”
A soft green diptych titled “AS A PARENT Turquoise” (2006) begins “the purpose of this letter is to appeal to you as a parent for the relief of my son” bringing a circle of perspectives to the various classified memos.
Made of fine strands, the wall sized LED screen spits out the confidential documents at a rapid speed. The deleted, secret sections of text trigger blinking X’s, and create a strobe effect that is abrasive and assaulting.
Information is the basis of the “Archive” and Holzer uses scale, repetition, and assiduous selection for impact. The paintings can look inert but, once read, spring to life. The reproduction of personal script on some paintings adds humanity to these dry administrative documents. “Archive” calls into question the purpose and use of data collected, mediated, and organized by our government.
“Night Feed” at Yvon Lambert documents a decade of Holzer’s site specific projections. Containing more typical Holter aphorisms—tumultuous and psychological—the phrases are projected on buildings, forests, and water in sites that span the globe.
The black and white photos are static images of events that were ephemeral, but these photos are considered works in themselves. The photography shoots are directed by Holzer but the photos are authored by others credited. Like the elements used in Holzer’s work, these pigment prints are a hybrid form of collaboration.
The projected words wrap the building and dominate the sites. Holzer’s text in “No one told me” (2006) creates relationship and invokes memory. The water in Florence is an accomplice in the projection that starts on the building and drifts downward to the water. The distorted words “Mother Knows” lie on the inky liquid.
The phrases often start with one mood and end at an unexpected detour. “Living Things” (2006) from a projection on Rockefeller Plaza reads, “We know how to bury the dead/ But potent moments of light elude our spells/ Heaped with dreams piled high like rugs”––text by Henri Cole. The photo transports the viewer into a suspension of belief, which can trigger multiple interpretations.
Church site and text melt in surreal transposition in “Perfect” (2006). Letters of light spelling “Perfect Sex” and “You position your spine until it waves” cover the church in profane glory.
The text by Henri Cole in “Smiling at Flesh” (2006) has a more direct connection to its site. A building and canal in Venice that are host to the words ”Cursing and Fumbling,” “With Flesh,” “Smelling Flesh,” “Cleaning up Flesh,” ”Smiling at Flesh” act as reminders of the canals stagnation and malodorous tendency.
The texts in “Night Feed” are taken from poets and writers or created by Holzer and act as enigmatic roller coasters of dramatic statement. Holzer, a wordsmith, practices the art of selection and extraction. Using scale, the choices are amplified. The specific sites often provide the surprise that triggers the evocation. These photos, densely hung, are spectacular in their varied and charged settings. Transformed by the intensely lit projected texts, these illuminations make us face ourselves in a combination that is memorable and requires frequent rereading.