Review: Jenny Holzer at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Jenny Holzer‘s alarming show at the MCA is aptly titled “Protect Protect“. The emphatic duplication of the verb in the title engenders a sense of urgency, and vicariously alludes to a growing sense of frustration. Holzer first came to fame with her Truisms in the late 1970’s, where a series of banal phrases were flashed across a small screen with LED lights. The flashing texts revealed schematic associations, especially in relation to the body, relationships, and interpersonal interactions. Without ever relinquishing her former affinity for the body (both the personal and the collective), Holzer has tweaked her messages somewhat (to say the least) by boldly referring to the current political landscape.

A vociferous speaker against the current administration, Holzer added several series of paintings to her repertoire, each concerned with methods of corporal punishment (“Wish List”), fatal torture (“Homicide”) and reports from prisoner camps (“Findings”). Interestingly, each series (all arranged in a militantly precise grid) consists of actual declassified war documents that Holzer blew up and set against a jarring electric color. The act of enlargement speaks of the monumental brutality (equally buttressed by the paintings’ high–as opposed to eye-level–positioning), which–combined with the color–create the same visual shock that Holzer’s flashing LED works in the next rooms produce.

Each of the LED installations–severely more complex than any of the work seen in her Truism series–is multi-layered and intimidatingly oversized. The flashing colors, the all-around positioning of the works in the gallery space, the angles at which the LED texts appear to be swallowed into the blank wall, and the varying speed at which the messages flash, all create the illusion of a nightmarish technological oasis. Resembling the neon luminescence of a gas station at midnight, together with the hypnotic (if vertiginous) effect of Vegas’ casino lights and the informational bombardment at Time Square, the works are meant to create the feeling of frustration, of missing out, of drowning in, and losing control. Given the current economic upheaval, the exhibition feels perfectly germane.

My only concern? The show is not a retrospective, and emphasis on almost all contemporary work becomes more of a gallery show than a truly academic endeavor. With no background on her Truisms and no inclusion of her Projections series, the exhibition feels a bit deficient.


Jenny Holzer, Mind Your Own, from Truism


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