Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Jenny Holzer

One of the questions that comes up with Jenny Holzer’s haunting exhibit “Archive,” which closes at Boston’s Barbara Krakow Gallery today, is whether such gallery art can be effective as political art.

Here the New York-based RISD grad (MFA 1977) screenprints enlarged copies of declassified U.S. government documents that recount the errors and crimes of our fight against Al Qaeda and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. An Army translator reports that Special Forces troops allegedly shocked a prisoner with electricity in Afghanistan in 2002. A military medical examiner’s report concludes that a dead Pakistani man was most likely kicked to death in American custody in Afghanistan later that year. FBI agents report Guantanamo prisoners kept from sleep with strobe lights and loud music and “baptized” by an interrogator posing as a Catholic priest. When an agent sees a prisoner on a cell floor, crying, his nose apparently bleeding, American interrogators claim, “the inmate had become upset with them and threw himself to the floor.”

If you’ve followed the news much in the past few years, the gist of this stuff is familiar. So I figured the documents, which Holzer presents without changing, would feel like old news. But reading the first-hand accounts (as you can do by clicking on the images here or visiting the link to the show above) is devastating, depressing, angering.

I often feel that artists who confine their political art to galleries are scaredy cats, hiding out in order to avoid the hurly-burly of worldly political engagement. But the power of Holzer’s screenprinted paintings – small enough to fit over your couch, with prices starting at $32,500 – shows how political art in galleries can work. (My full review is here.)

Holzer first presented these works as projections onto the facades of George Washington University and New York University buildings. These are long, wordy documents. It’s hard to tell how they would feel in that mode. How legible were they?

Powerful political street art often doesn’t work well in galleries. The short, simple, direct messages that are often required to reach people on the street can feel too simple and hectoring in galleries. Galleries are good places for long looking, reading, for thinking things out, and thus for quiet, philosophical, complex political art.

And that’s why Holzer’s screenprinted paintings are so effective here. As gallery pieces we can take our time with them, absorb their complexity, and feel their full horror.

Jennny Holzer, “Archive,” Barbara Krakow Gallery, 10 Newbury St., Boston, April 28 to June 6, 2007.

Related: The Onion reports: “CIA Realizes It’s Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years.”

Pictured from top to bottom: “We're at War (Red),” 2006; “I Heard Many Rumors (Pink),” 2007; and “Special Forces (Yellow White),” 2006. Images courtesy of Barbara Krakow Gallery.


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