Review: Jenny Holzer’s “Dust Paintings” at Cheim & Read

photograph taken by Brian Buckley for Cheim & Read, New York
Jenny Holzer, “Assets and Activities 13 2013,” Oil on linen. photograph taken by Brian Buckley for Cheim & Read, New York.

by Rachel Heidenry

Jenny Holzer’s Dust Paintings, on view at Cheim & Read through October 25th, is breathtaking and expository. Taking government documents as her starting point, Holzer transforms detailed reports into paintings on canvas that blur the line between abstraction and reality. The documents incorporated into the works relate to the invasion of Iraq and subsequent years of warfare. Mostly written as first-hand accounts, the reports elucidate on political strategy and human wreckage, including detailed tales of interrogation tactics.

photograph taken by Brian Buckley for Cheim & Read, New York
Installation view. Photograph taken by Brian Buckley for Cheim & Read, New York.
photograph taken by Brian Buckley for Cheim & Read, New York
Installation view. Photograph taken by Brian Buckley for Cheim & Read, New York.

One document – the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command’s Gardez Report – makes its way into multiple paintings. Detailing the death of Jamal Naseer, an Afghan prisoner who died in U.S. custody, the report traces the sustained torture performed in the prison. Holzer paints these canvases with a stark array of grays, blues and blacks – language matching its sentiment. Another group of paintings is based on CIA and FBI reports that are heavily censored. Very little text is visible other than words such as “Secret,” “Conclusion,” or “Terrorist Group” – these phrases the only distinguishers from typical Color Field Paintings.

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Jenny Holzer, “I was arrested 2013,” Oil on linen. Photo courtesy of Cheim & Read.
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Jenny Holzer, XX 7 2013, Oil on linen. Photo courtesy of Cheim & Read.

From afar, Holzer’s canvases are stunning explorations of color, line and form. Until looked at up-close and with an informed eye, the paintings could remain seemingly blissful. Just as governments downplay the indiscretions of warfare by attempting to disguise its trauma, Holzer eases us into her works through visually pleasant canvases. Immediately upon closer inspection, however, blacked out text leaps off the canvas and reminds us that so much information is still publicly unknown. By converting the documents into paintings, Holzer invites us to examine them as we would a work of art: intensely and critically. It is precisely the fact that once we really start looking, it is difficult to turn a blind eye.

photograph taken by Brian Buckley for Cheim & Read, New York
Jenny Holzer, “PRESENTLY IN THE UNITED STATES 2014,” Oil on linen. Photograph taken by Brian Buckley for Cheim & Read, New York.
photograph taken by Brian Buckley for Cheim & Read, New York
Installation View. Photograph taken by Brian Buckley for Cheim & Read, New York.

Holzer’s approach to the series directly pulls on a sense of urgency that calls our attention to language’s subtleties. This has been the artist’s speciality since the 1970s when she began passing out her Truisms in New York City. Typically working within public spaces and on mediums such as flyers, electronic signs or stone benches, Holzer has been actively concerned with how information is communicated and received throughout her artistic career. The artist nuances the subtly of a declaration, opinion or fact – making us question, ponder and read.

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Jenny Holzer, “CONCLUSION 2014,” Oil on linen. Photo courtesy of Cheim & Read.

Returning to the paintings on view, Holzer encapsulates the body of work in the piece “Conclusion 2014.” The large-scale canvas shows a large rectangle of blacked out text in the center of the composition, surrounded by abstract grey and blue strokes that emit the feeling of shredded paper. The painting is exhibited along with an electronic ticker tape that hangs from the gallery ceiling. Words from a government document are fed through the device, becoming public as each letter creeps into view. Exhibited side-by-side, the two works underscore Holzer’s constant probing of public versus private information and the strategies performed to take it all in.

Dust Paintings is on view at Cheim & Read through October 25th. 

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