Is an exhibition ever too beautiful for its own good? Jenny Holzer’s new show at Cheim & Read, Dust Paintings, is ravishing. But the sensuality of these text-based abstractions, done in oil on linen in mostly muted colors, runs counter to their content, which is derived from declassified government reports of brutalization and death during the Afghan War. At what point does the exquisiteness of the paint undermine the barbarity of the subject?
This question didn’t arise at Holzer’s previous solo at the gallery, which took place in 2006 and was titled Archive. The paintings in that show, also based on declassified, redacted government documents, were silkscreened on linen, as if they were enlarged photocopies, without any formal elaboration. The effect was ascetic and dour, but perfectly suited to the tenor of the times. In my review for The Brooklyn Rail, I wrote:
[The show’s] procession of unadorned, mechanical surfaces channel the documents’ impersonal language and stabs of pain into a dirge for a republic succumbing to the Faustian temptations of empire. In a way they look back to Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays” (1979–1982) — plain offset prints of texts on colored paper spewing surreal political outrage — only now the inflammatory words are the government’s own.
That was eight years and one president ago, but the incalculable destruction unleashed by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney is ever-present (on the day I saw the show, the House of Representatives voted to authorize arming Syrian rebels to combat ISIS). The seemingly (and, quite possibly, literally) endless grind of the Bush /Cheney wars, however, has transformed our response to events past and present. The mass protests are gone. The promises of Barack Obama to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan have succumbed to the tide of history. We approach what was once a source of outrage with resignation and dread.
Holzer’s new paintings could not be more different from the ones she showed in 2006, nor, for that matter, could they be more beautiful. Most of them are done in richly resonant grisailles — softly shimmering whites and lush grays over a black ground — with handwritten texts culled from declassified documents materializing against the rhythmic brushstrokes like a gentle shower of rain. You could ignore what the writing says and lose yourself in the painting if not for the typewritten notices — “For Official Use Only-Law Enforcement Sensitive” or “SECRET/NOFORN”(meaning that “no foreign nationals” are allowed to read the report) — that interrupt the flow of the marks at the top or bottom of the canvas.
While much of the writing is done in crisp black set off by whites and grays, Holzer at times switches the words to white, making it more difficult to read the narratives, most of which are witness statements, transcribed with misspellings and other grammatical mistakes, concerning Jamal Naseer, an Afghan soldier who died in American custody. This is especially true of “or Burnt” (2013), in which the white writing is lost in a sea of white brushstrokes.
It is the most extreme example of the paintings’ dual nature as document and abstraction. You’re drawn close by aesthetic pleasure, but then you must break off your visual caress to read the report, which is often elliptical and out of context. But with “or Burnt,” it becomes obvious that the writing is in fact forcing you to look harder at the painted surface, which offers up such sumptuous details as the serpents’ tongues of light blue paint flicking across clusters of brushstrokes that seemed, at first blush, to be entirely white.
You also stumble upon, as you seek out the painting’s formal secrets, the source of its title, which is found below and to the left of the main text’s first-person account of an Afghan who was arrested, beaten and then released by the American forces. It is a chilling, three-line non sequitur: “Not Electrocuted / or Burnt / No Toenails Removed.”
What could that refer to, and who could have written it? The redacted, fragmentary documents are found poetry, and the sumptuously applied pigments gathering around them, which suggest shredded paper, erased blackboards, ash or smoke, become their inseparable setting — the piano score to a Schubert song, which is never secondary but formally and emotionally bound up with the words.
Perhaps this is why the few fully abstract paintings — based on completely redacted documents — lose some of the energy found in the text works, despite their broader range of color. They are absent the granular layers, coupled with the innate contradictions, of the grisailles works.
In an interview with Time Out, Holzer relates the color abstractions to those of the Russian Suprematists:
I’ve always been astonished by the Suprematists and at what happened in early-20th-century Russian poetry, politics and art. It was a very optimistic period that crashed.
Perhaps this is what accounts for the abstractions’ sense of detachment: they are taking a long look at art history, at another culture from a vanished era, while the text-based ones are confronting the unsettled present with an impure (literal, literary and topical) take on painting and a fractious, uncertain amalgam of styles. But those qualities — barbed, vexing, disjointed — correlate to the anarchic hellishness of current circumstances as well as the appalling legacy of the conflict: that the situations in both Iraq and Afghanistan have unraveled exactly as many foresaw in 2003. The paintings are a lament for the lives lost and ruined by Cheney’s wantonness, avarice and power lust, enabled by Bush’s vanity, recklessness and stupidity. They are interlaced with nuances in a way that was not possible for the similarly-sourced works Holzer made in 2006.
But do they aestheticize tragedy, as Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series of the early 1960s (to which Holzer’s Archive paintings have been compared) were accused of doing? While looking at the show, I was reminded that Francisco de Goya y Lucientes painted “The 3rd of May 1808” in 1814, exactly two hundred years ago and six years after the fact. In contrast, Edouard Manet began his update of Goya’s painting, “The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian,” in 1867, immediately upon hearing the news of the hapless Hapsburg’s death by a resurgent Mexican firing squad. Manet’s “Execution,” which he developed through a series of four paintings and one print, is considered a landmark in modern painting for its bleak dispassion — the executed are as emotionless as the executioners — a painted snapshot that leaves the viewer feeling cut off from the event. Goya’s picture, completed after years of hindsight, is a timeless evocation of Aristotelian pity and terror — a harshly lit, densely colored discourse on cruelty, all the more heartbreaking for the depth of its beauty.
Is an exhibition ever too beautiful for its own good? Possibly, yes — but Holzer’s Dust Paintings (which refers to the literal meaning of ghubar, or traditional Arabic calligraphy, as “dust writing”), with its ruminative strokes of paint suffused with memory and regret, isn’t one.
Jenny Holzer: Dust Paintings continues at Cheim & Read (547 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 25.
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