Forcing Visions in Jenny Holzer’s “Dust Paintings”

Entering Jenny Holzer’s latest exhibition, Dust Paintings, there can be no doubt how the artist would like you to proceed. Off to the right, easily missed, is likely what you expect at a gallery: sterile white rooms where Holzer’s latest works hang with ample space in between, silent, inviting contemplation. Their aura is covered though, not at all like a film of dust—more like peasants before shock troops. The perpetrator is before you: a neon pendulum swings with great mechanical groans, underneath which a single painting, entitled Conclusion, appears held in captivity. It pulses, reflects the epileptic light emitted from the pillar.

You cannot help but proceed first into this empirical room, awash in neon blue.

CONCLUSION 2014, Jenny Holzer

Along the pillar run phrases lifted from declassified documents from the United States’ War on Terror. LED words—Was asked if he knew about the death of XXX—provide the only light. They are mostly blue, although constantly flickering, and on occasion flash between green and orange or some other color. The flashes constantly burn afterimages in my eyes, so that when the text passes between contrasting hues the retinal effect results in a temporary compounded glow over Conclusion’s reflection of the pillar’s color. In this way, Conclusion feels almost alive, like a computer.

There is solace, though. A large black rectangle remains largely unaffected by the lighting, and I find that by focusing on it, I can push distractions to the peripheral. It and I are the only things that do not move in this room, and in this way we are one. In reflecting on this I feel as if I’ve been led to this realization, and wonder what secret this black rectangle is hiding. Of course, the painting is also partially composed of phrases lifted from the War on Terror—redacted war documents and interviews of detainees—and the jump here seems too easy, too forced. For the second time already, some fabrication is telling me how to react.

But perhaps this, at least in part, is the point. The artworks, like their subject matter, impose narratives we easily accept as true. In this way, some of Holzer’s earlier work, where truisms are projected in public spaces, shows its influence.

HANGING 2014, Jenny Holzer

I go next to the rooms with the white walls, but fifteen minutes or so was enough to leave my eyes struggling to adjust to sudden stability. The mild hallucinations caused by retinal afterimages follow.

The experience of viewing the paintings with unsteady eyes is not a natural one. At every moment, there is the sense of imposed control, whether emanating from the artist’s canvas or her subject matter. Holzer is ever-present, a visible creator—a director, if you will. In this state, the simple geometry of a rectangle of any dimensions and size is at once present, subversive, bold, and heinous. Holzer, as Henri Cole nicely says, “is creating symbols of abuse.”

Under the spell, individual brushstrokes flash momentarily, standing out like a slash or a foot dragged through the sand. Other sections seem like pieces cut out of a larger Pangea. Eventually though, the hallucination wears off. As my vision settles, paint fades merely into texture—simple contrast to the type from documents and a complement to the script from interviews. Whatever stood out as nicely representative of torture before now feels imitative. If before the canvas felt painterly, now it seems posterly.

Photo: Will Fenstermaker

Unlike Plato’s allegorical return to the cave, I feel no great need to return to my illuminated state, or to spread any understanding of what I’d learned about the shapes on the wall. What I’d seen about their creation just simply wasn’t revelatory. If the sculpture turns one’s eyes into lenses through which to view the show, they are less like X-Ray goggles than 3D glasses. The special effects (and this is what they are) of the paintings, ultimately give way to no epiphany other than the awareness of an underlying and sinister control. It’s less of a peek behind a curtain than simply a statement that a curtain exists.

These paintings could not live outside of a gallery; to remove them from the influence of sculpture and space would be to remove them from their only source of power. It seems at times as if the paintings were created not for any gallery in general, but this sort of contemporary sterile viewing space in particular, with its concrete floors, blacked-out skylight, and general vibe of—a rather comfortable—underground bunker.

The simple problem with Dust Paintings is that the paintings themselves are too political; and, much like a grandstanding politician, they are unable to rise above the issues presented to offer genuine vision. In fact, any reaction I had toward the paintings was less the result of any communion with them than with my own need to shape a narrative to write a review.

DOODLE 2014, Jenny Holzer

DOODLE 2014, Jenny Holzer

In the final room, I found Holzer’s highly publicized interpretation of the infamous NSA smiley face diagram leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden. I confess to have found it impenetrable. By this time my eyes had long adjusted to the normal lighting, and I imagined, based on half-thoughts about the appropriation of political materials, that it might serve again as another key or stimulant. But without any sort of effectit almost seemed to exist—dare I suggest it?—solely to provoke headlines such as this: That Infamous NSA Smiley Face Diagram Is Hanging In A New York Art Gallery.