In the midst of light-hearted Jubilee celebrations, even Jenny Holzer’s loud, provocative statements have been drowned out by the cheering crowds. Now that the festivities have died down, art goers returning to the gallery setting might be startled back into a darker reality in viewing her works on show at Sprüth Magers.
Who knew such an intimate exhibition could speak so loudly? In the small space on Grafton Street, Sprüth Magers presents a brief survey show by American artist Jenny Holzer. Famous for using language as her medium to animate both transient and eternal slogans, Holzer presents only a handful of objects, each being more confrontational than the last.
Her latest London exhibition, Sophisticated Devices, features works from two series, Living and Survival, in which the artist’s texts caution, inform and question with short, urgent sentences. This skilled textual provocateur poses questions not simply philosophical, but often accusatory, frequently implicating the viewer with a direct address. Holzer engages political, environmental, social and human issues with sharp wording in her characteristic non-emotive style, always hinting at an ambiguous narrative. These phrases materialize in a variety of media, including spray painted canvases, granite benches (on which the artist invites viewers to sit), LED tickers, and cast plaques as one sees on historic monuments.
Holzer is well known for her quippy truisms, such as “abuse of power comes as no surprise” or “salvation can’t be bought and sold”. In Sophisticated Devices, there is little difference in her matter-of-fact style of language, but the subject matter seems to have darkened significantly. Now, hers are not bitter, but ominous words. You can’t miss them boldly drawn into a spray painted work called “I AM NOT FREE BECAUSE I CAN BE EXPLOADED ANYTIME” (1983-84), a result of collaborating with New York graffiti artist Lady Pink.
Clearly, Holzer exhibits an edgy choice of slogans in this exhibition. Almost apocalyptic phrases, her texts are aggressive and challenging. Holzer acknowledges there is a lot of “tough content” to grapple with in this tiny gallery. But it seems no matter in which decade her art is made, the themes remain the same. While being relevant in the 1980s, these works equally respond to current global issues of government disillusionment, mistrusting institutions, and revolutions against the powers that be.
A small yet poignant exhibition, the gallery makes us wonder how far (if at all?) we have come over the last few decades in dealing with failing economies, internal politics, and global conflict. War and revolts still unbalance our current living conditions, and perhaps Holzer’s words speak unexamined truths we would rather not acknowledge? Yet, (as it is an artist’s prerogative) Holzer is quick to deny any assessment thus. “There’s no reason for me to give my pathetic opinion.” The work literally speaks for itself. And I, for one, appreciate that. Jenny Holzer “Sophisticated Devices” @Sprüth Magers London until 29 July Words/Photo Sharon Strom © Artlyst 2012