Jenny Holzer: Blue

at Rhona Hoffman, through May 29

Natural Resources

at Northern Illinois University Art Gallery, through June 5

Jenny Holzer has been making text-based art for two decades. Moving to New York in the late 70s and abandoning the abstract painting she’d been doing as a student, she began making anonymous street posters, inscribing texts on stone benches, and photographing handwritten texts on human skin. But she’s probably best known for her LED signs, whose rapidly moving words suggest advertising and news tickers.

All-text art can seem like the lazy last refuge of postmodernists who never learned to draw. But Holzer goes way beyond the pomo one-liner, paying close attention to her texts, which she writes herself, and to their physical display, producing a complex viewing experience fraught with emotional tension and modernist ambiguities and involving the viewer in the production of meaning. That respect for the viewer and for the complexity of a viewer’s experience over time differentiates her work from the facile products of more recent all-text artists.

Holzer told an interviewer that in a group of early works, “Inflammatory Essays,” she was trying to convey “a great sense of urgency about the subjects, which I thought could be done by…using really hot language.” The same might be said of the texts in the six 1998 works–four LED signs and two stone benches–at Rhona Hoffman. Responding in part to atrocities against women in Bosnia, perhaps also to her mother’s recent death, and apparently to violence against women in general, Holzer writes texts certain to provoke strong reactions: “The color of her where she is inside out is enough to make me kill her.” But many people can produce “hot” language; more deeply engaging are Holzer’s ambiguities.

In the LED display Lustmord (a German word Holzer roughly translates as “rapeslaying”), the text–available in a printed version at the gallery desk–alternates between a perpetrator (“I step on her hands”), a victim (“I am awake in the place where women die”), and an observer (“She smiles at me because she imagines I can help her”). But because some of the phrases are themselves ambiguous (“I have the blood jelly”) and because of the run-on way the text is displayed, these “characters” aren’t clearly differentiated at first. Holzer frequently blurs the identities of her speakers: Arno begins with what sounds like the voice of a lover (“I see you…I tickle you”), but soon the voice shifts to that of a victim (“You are the one / You are the one who did this to me”). Near the end of Arno we read, “I shelter you / I run from you.” Blue conflates a number of voices and stories: lovers, victim and victimizer, mother and child, a dying older woman, a dying man.

Who is speaking? What is the text about? Such questions seem urgent because the texts are so urgent. Even more disturbing is the way Holzer’s words bring the overt violence in a place like Bosnia closer to us, much closer than media depictions; Lustmord interweaves that violence with more mundane stories that could easily be our own. “With you inside me comes the knowledge of my death” may be first the cry of a rape victim, but it also describes an emotion many lovers have felt. “I try to excite myself so I stay crazy” could describe many ordinary folks at some point in their lives. The couch potato watching news coverage of a war on TV is in a way under attack here, at every shift in the text–at the apparently innocent point in Arno where the neutral “I ask you” becomes the more disturbing “I don’t ask…I can’t tell you.” Our daily small deceptions, our tiny lies, place us on a continuum of human evil that leads a few moments later to a victim’s lament: “I am losing ground. I cannot stand it.”

What raises Holzer’s works from intelligent provocation to the level of real art is the way her displays formally replicate the kind of viewer involvement her words seem to call for. Though her LED signs are much used in advertising, in Holzer’s work they’re opposed to the ethos of our object-oriented commercial culture. True, her signs also command attention, but she eschews the glitziest of effects, and in part because her texts are so multivalent and fleeting, the words seem dematerialized. Holzer intensifies this effect by varying the lettering styles. Once a complete text has run through, the style changes when it’s repeated, from ordinary blue lettering to block letters with blue outlines to rising letters that seem superimposed over the same text moving downward to black letters against a blue field–a mode that particularly undercuts the idea of the word as object, since here the letters are formed by unilluminated LEDs.

Just reading these rapidly moving texts is an exercise in creating meaning. On the page we read whole phrases at a time, but Holzer’s LED displays usually force the viewer to read the words one by one, sometimes straining to catch them as they race by, putting the sentence together only in memory. Focused attention on each word heightens its potential ambiguities; the text is also embedded more deeply in the viewer’s consciousness, in part because of the conscious act of retrieval. Once again Holzer undercuts our ability to passively receive news of violence and outrage: these stories become our own, revealing the way art differs from news reporting and propaganda. Art can get under the viewer’s skin, while mass media–which cast the viewer as an anonymous separate entity with whom they must “communicate”–encourages the viewer to reject the communication, to wall off the self from the world.

Holzer’s two benches–Memorial Bench I: Always Polite… and Memorial Bench II: Eye Cut by Flying Glass…–are just as provocative as her LED signs even though their texts are incised in stone. Reading them remains an active process because of the benches’ neutral gray and the illumination, which can make the words almost invisible. The fact that viewers can sit on the benches creates a physical connection, and some of the phrases are so direct (“Your mother with no real power”) that they forge an emotional connection. The texts on the benches make up the fourth LED sign, Erlauf, which ends “Who died looking / Whose thoughts are missing.” One of Holzer’s goals may be to provide a voice to the voiceless, but she also succeeds at a more difficult and more noble task–allowing us to hear that voice with the same under-the-skin intimacy of a lover’s whisper.

Ultimately Holzer’s is a deeply moral art, and despite her fascination with victim and victimizer, it’s a democratic art as well. Just as her shifts in language attack the victim-victimizer dynamic, so she assigns the viewer an equal role, making us see such destructive patterns in our own lives, feel them within ourselves. Her approach, though, is circumscribed by our culture: she uses human technology to tell human stories. Her narratives of exploitation and ruin are arguably too narrow: where are the voices of the truly voiceless, the plants and animals and stones we’ve trampled to build “civilization”?

Perhaps the most underreported trend of recent decades is the intentional surrender of at least some of the artist’s control to nature. Works of this sort go back at least as far as Rauschenberg in the early 50s, to be sure, and arguably even to pre-Columbian times. But only in recent decades have Western artists consistently allowed their forms to be shaped by plants, animals, or stones. The best such artists do so from the deeply held moral position that we’re wrong to regard the planet as our property. Ultimately these artists reject–as did Aldo Leopold, the great ecological writer of the 30s and 40s–the Abrahamic code of Genesis, in which land was said to be a human “possession.” This is a movement with particularly strong roots in the midwest; most of the five artists in the excellent show “Natural Resources,” at Northern Illinois University Art Gallery, have some ties to Chicago.

In Sleep of Leaves, Barbara Kendrick, perhaps owing a debt to Holzer, inscribes single words (“desire,” “fear”) on the leaves of a potted ficus tree. But these words also wound the leaves, destroying small portions of them. Here the work’s dimensions are determined by the shape of the plant, but Kendrick’s intervention seems intended to suggest that human culture, and human emotions, are damaging to nature. And while Holzer’s works can presumably survive indefinitely–LEDs can be replaced–Kendrick’s piece has a lifetime limited to the plant’s.

The idea that nature and culture are at odds is eloquently expressed in several other works. In 500 Belted Stones, Palli Davene Davis has wrapped each of hundreds of stones on three shelves with one or more thin strips of wood, curved around the bottom and secured by a wooden clasp above the stone. Though loosely “fastened,” the belts struck me as symbolic frames, metaphors for the act of collecting and for the way human perception isolates, encircles, quantifies, and catalogs natural objects.

If Davis sets up a dynamic contrast between the irregular stones and the more regular belts, Karen McCoy in Childhood offers an even starker contrast: she’s compacted burs into five shapes that read as solid rectangles from a distance but actually have nary a straight line–they’re full of holes and prickers. The piece is a study in the tension between two kinds of energy: that of the minimalist box and that of natural, almost chaotic forms.

The majority of eco-artists seem to be women, but men have also done good work in this area; the one male artist here, however, doesn’t really make eco-art, though his pieces do show the principles of physics at work. Mark Arctander’s nine “Firework Drawings” are the records of fireworks explosions, made on larger pieces of paper that were cut down. Charming in their own way, these circles and straight, curved, and interrupted lines have neither the intentionality of Jackson Pollock–though surely they are “action paintings”–nor the mindlessness of his worst imitators.

Michele Brody offers the show’s most beguiling work in two Flax-in-Flax: Stages pieces, which mount flax seeds on sheets of flax paper. The one with the most material is the most impressive: in the first of 12 panels, the seeds are inert; as one moves to the right, they sprout more and more. In the last five or so sheets of paper, the horizontal line of seeds and stems of earlier panels, suggesting the horizon in a landscape painting, appears to be the origin of a veritable garden of sprouts and leaves. Indeed, Brody placed the seeds on her handmade paper while it was still wet; the ones left on the paper longest sprouted the most. The way the “story” of seeds sprouting to make a garden is presented as successive stages of the same view, almost like a little movie, engages the viewer in that story’s unfolding. Her pairing of flax seeds with flax paper and her placement of the gardens at the center of the rectangular paper both suggest an attempt to heal the split between art making and nature that Kendrick, Davis, and McCoy articulate so well.