Jenny Holzer has used government documents as a source for her work since 2004, and she has used language as her primary medium since the late 1970s. Whether this be placed on electronic signs or stone benches, Holzer’s text investigates how ideas are transformed from argument or opinion into fact.
Turning to government documents months after the invasion of Iraq by the United States and the United Kingdom, Holzer has tried to reconstruct the path to war from the language of its architects and executors. Her painted pieces trace the political fallout and human wreckage in the global war on terror, the first series of which use the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command’s Gardez Report as source material. The report details the investigation of Afghan prisoner, Jamal Naseer’s death in the custody of U.S. Special Forces. One of eight men made to kneel on the ground while a mixture of snow and water was poured over them, Naseer sustained beating on the back, face, and legs. The descriptions of stark conditions are evoked in the paintings, many of which are painted in whites, blacks, and grays.
In a second group of paintings based on heavily redacted CIA and FBI reports, blocks of censored text have been replaced by colour and now recall Suprematist or Color Field paintings – whilst condemning excerpts of text still read through.
Whilst Holzer’s early paintings were screen-printed, she now works entirely by hand, with each letter traced, transferred, and carefully re-painted. Holzer’s process echoes and amplifies traditional Arabic calligraphy, the process of ghubar, which translates as “dust writing.”
Henri Cole, catalogue author, writes: “These new paintings of Jenny’s are a kind of dust-writing, or to be more exact, a kind of dust-painting. After all, they sometimes verge on darkness or dust, and, for me, they are more interesting to ponder as artworks than real evil, which can be predictable or banal. Standing before Jenny’s dust-paintings, if I squint my eyes and let my imagination run wild, I can hear a call to prayer. I can see a crowded street with men rushing past, stirring up dust. And I also can see shrouded women behind them sprinkling water—quietly, methodically—to settle it.”
Jenny Holzer: Dust Paintings Until 25 October Cheim & Read, 547 W 25th St, New York, NY 10001, United States www.cheimread.com
1.Jenny Holzer, X CONCLUSION, (2014) Photograph: courtesy Cheim & Read gallery