Artist Rooms: Jenny Holzer
American artist Jenny Holzer’s work has long been characterised by its political fervour. Her epigrams – as seen racing across neon signs, or printed on condom wrappers – are outspoken and accessible. “TALKING IS USED TO HIDE ONE’S INABILITY TO ACT,” reads one. “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT,” reads another. These textual pieces are projected onto buildings and printed onto baseball caps, meaning that they are presented in the most publically accessible places. Holzer’s ability to harness language in her work – and use it to evoke strong and potent emotion – has cemented her status as one of the most significant contemporary visual artists, winning the Gold Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1990, and the MOCA’s Distinguished Women in the Arts Award in 2010.
Until 31st July 2019, the Tate’s Artist Rooms are playing host to Holzer’s work. The exhibition, split over five rooms, contains a collection of works spanning the varying stages of Holzer’s career, beginning with her wordplay, and continuing right up to her most recent medium: painting. When the military documents from the 2003 invasion of Iraq were declassified, Holzer began to paint them, emphasising – through colour and brushstrokes – their references to abominable acts of violence. She had previously flirted with painting as a young woman, studying the former alongside drawing and printmaking at the University of Chicago, before completing her BFA at Ohio University in Athens in 1972; it was not until 1976, however, that Holzer found her footing as an artist, after joining the Whitney Museum’s independent study programme, and beginning to experiment with text-based art. While Holzer had deemed herself a bad painter, she felt comfortable with words, and began to deliver them in public spaces. Some of her most revered and meaningful pieces come from this period. T-shirts, stickers and wheat-pasted posters, they’re all features in Holzer’s first play at accessing a new audience, away from gallerists and art critics, and disseminating information on social injustice, and the darker parts of the human psyche; Holzer can be a bit bleak.
When the military documents from the 2003 invasion of Iraq were declassified, Holzer began to paint them, emphasising – through colour and brushstrokes – their references to abominable acts of violence.
She processes and reports on terror, murder, sex, kindness, and beauty. Immigration and war are part of this, with heartfelt references to the Syrian conflict playing a central role in her paintwork: a rigid sleeping bag occupies a corner of a smaller room – a soldier once lay dying in this work, as a nurse, knowing that she could not help him, whispered that everything would be okay. Holzer creates a potent emotive language that straddles linguistic and visual understanding, and responds to the materials around her to do this: she began to work with stone when she moved upstate, and began to see rocks. For her, language is a sculptural medium that adapts to its surroundings, as much as its audience.
What these words are printed on is just as important as what is said. The central room contains a neon piece titled “Floor” – aptly named for its original designation – that hangs from the ceiling, sloping slightly on one side as if the words were hurtling toward this perilous point only to plummet to their deaths. A circle of benches envelops the sign, engraved with the words of Anna Świrszczyńska. The installation is a memorial, with Świrszczyńska’s prose curling over it, recalling her experience as a nurse and member of the Polish Resistance during the Second World War. The mixed-media contrast created reveals an interesting picture of the artist’s career, resting as much on political contemplation as personal outpourings. There’s an almost claustrophobia-inducing feel to the mass of words that surrounds you, tipped off by the poster-covered and thought-mongering room that first greets you.
Being an artist of the public means exhibiting where the public will see you best, and Holzer has grasped this succinctly, filtering her work into our consciousness in the most fun ways. The sheer span of her work – as seen at the Tate or elsewhere – gives her an artistic omnipresence that befits few other characters.