War & Remembrance: Holzer v. Grigely

by Titus OBrien November 27, 2008
I just saw two shows at one museum that were nearly perfect foils for one another, each helping inform and reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the other.

The MCA seems to be rolling out one art world A-list superstar exhibition after another. The highly publicized (if generally loathed) Koons show was up from Spring through Fall, followed by Jenny Holzer’s “Protect Protect” which just opened the other week (who’s next? Schnabel? Kruger? Salle?) And it nearly knocks you down with its subsidized blockbluster.

I’ve never been much of a fan. She’s always struck me as the ultimate one-trick pony, having done everything conceivable with LED text signs, with their blankly menacing phrases – or one would think, until the next show rolls around and there’s another crop of reconfigured “Abuse of Power Comes As No Surprise”s. Neither did seeing that old chestnut scrolling by along with other familiar one-liners on her new signs, which dominate the galleries – and surely occasionally induce seizures.

They are grand – brighter, flashier, bigger than ever. And moving faster too. The text zips by so fast now you get nauseated trying to follow along.


Installed with obvious nods to Andre, Judd, and Flavin, the garishly techno formal polish further undercut her blatant desire for direct subversion, not to mention the actual apprehension of her words, old or new (like snippets of declassified government docs).
Considering their sources, the text became a strange abstract element, meaning completely negligible – as if she’s simply sampling a younger, more inspired version of herself, before she’d been completely absorbed into the museum-circuit Borg hive. It looked like an "Art Exhibition" created to simulate a 21st century museum in a massive Hollywood sci-fi spectacular circa 1985, or Sex and the City episode.

Worse by far, and at complete odds with the signs, were dozens of rinky-dink stretched canvases piled up on the walls, each with a silkscreened blow-up of a redacted government Guantanamo document, or map of Iraq, senselessly painted in different shades of neon lime green and purple. Seriously? Welcome to "Political Art 101."

In the ambient glow of one large sign sculpture sat two small, spot-lit tables, covered with human bones, some of them metal-band-tagged with bits of text. Called “Lustmord” (German for “sex-murder”), the ‘list of works’ declares it to be about rape as strategy in Kosovo. Sigh.

What is this art really supposed to do? It functions neither as successful agitprop, revelatory exegesis, or more purely formal, phenomenological event – or even interesting conflation of the three. It clearly, desperately wants to reveal to us the bare ominous facts about deadly serious things.

But we’re ominously up to our eyeballs in bald-faced deadly serious things. Do we really need CNN hyper-aesthetically repackaged for us? Who is she talking to? Few heading to a contemporary art museum are likely to have been detainee torture/ethnic cleansing advocates, or unaware that we all experience migraine-inducing sensory/media overload. She really didn’t need to literally bang that one into our retinas. I needed an Advil after.
I have to believe that art can successfully talk about the horrors that wo/men do, though few recent examples are coming readily to mind. It makes me think of a Picasso still life I once saw. From across the room it felt like a knife to the guts. I wondered why until I looked at the wall card – painted Paris, 1943. Sometimes a painting of a coffeepot can be more appalling than a manufactured horror show. These things take a light, deft hand…
I couldn’t get past the sheer branded Holzer-y-ness of it all to apprehend any fresh feeling, thought, or insight about the actual events she seems to wish for us to decry. And I’m not sure she can anymore either.
And finally, who curated this mish-mash? Neither retrospective, nor body of cohesive new work, it’s just a right fucking mess.

Upstairs, I found sweet relief in survey of the work of Joseph Grigely, titled "St Cecilia." Grigely lost his hearing as a child, and while the matter of his work often emanates from the experience of being deaf among a predominantly more-or-less ably hearing humanity, its an emphasis on that shared humanity that makes the work so compelling.
We’re Drunken Bantering About What’s Important in Life
2007 (photo from Cohan & Leslie Gallery)
A number of pieces involve the notes exchanged with hearing people with whom he’s unable to read lips, or sign. These intimate moments of conversation on napkins, post-its, scraps, notebook paper, often with accompanying drawings signs and doodles, are in turn hilarious, poignant, poetic, and weird (a favorite read “I wish I were going to a tropical island for sleep. + sex!”) I overheard a docent pointing out ones by “famous artists” like Takashi Murakami. Something about “seeing” conversation fragments like this, with the quirks of handwriting and the marks of times and places, is ineffably evocative.

 Remembering is a difficult job, but Somebody has to do it, 2005 (photo from Cohan & Leslie gallery)
A dozen other works include sculpture, installation, video, sound, and film, and enact similar shifts of awareness. Simple & direct, nuanced with humor and pathos, they reveal things fundamentally human, like a paradoxically shared ‘otherness’ recognizable to anyone. Not to be too corny about it, but aren’t we really all “disabled”; struggling to make contact, meandering through mazes of self-blindness and meaning-slippage toward flashes of insight and quiet wonder at the often gentle hilarity/periodic tragedy of our circumstance?

Sometimes, just in time, you see a show that reminds you what the art context can provide that other genres can’t, at least not in the same way. “Oh, yeah! That’s what we’re after. That’s why we make this stuff, and make our way to go to see it.”
(Holzer photos from the MCA , and Art21.)

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