Jenny Holzer: Sophisticated Devices at Sprüth Magers, London

Jenny Holzer is an artist known for her words. Whether it’s T-shirts, plaques or LED signs, Holzer emblazons her medium of choice with witty quotes – or “truisms” – to create instantly satisfying pieces that every English speaker can understand. Since her emergence onto the art scene in the late 1970s, her quips like, “Money Creates Taste,” and “Freedom is a Luxury Not a Necessity,” have proved popular with critics and the public alike. Today, they continue to provoke a similar reaction, so much so, they’ve inspired a Twitter account all for themselves, (@jennyholzer) posting statements that have been previously inscribed in her art.

With such impact in mind, London’s Sprüth Magers’ current survey of Holzer’s practice Sophisticated Devices calls for excitement. The show picks up a selection of pieces from her 1980s repertoire including spray painted canvases, classic granite benches and LED banners, all of which offer a cheeky slogan for us to mull over. With a gallery as small as Sprüth Magers the show at first seems a little underwhelming. Where are Holzer’s eye-catching posters and oversized light installations? Where are her epic projections? It’s difficult to think of Holzer’s work as small or subtle but this show refutes her as an artist who longs to assault the senses and as one focusing on the detail. One of the best moments in the show is stumbling upon a small and out-of-the-way plaque declaring forgetfulness – quiet and unassuming.

The initial disappointment, which although very quickly faded, nonetheless asks the question, what do we expect from successful modern artists? And, are we only in it for the awe-inspiring and the epic? The recent London exhibitions that have provoked queues and great hype are undeniably bold; Damien Hirst’s gilded butterflies and severed cow’s head; Lucien Freud’s thickly layered and uninhibited portraits. When it comes to modern artists, do we yearn for them to be extrovert and when they’re not, see them as unaccomplished?

Undeniably, I have been affected by my generation’s love of Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons but what separates Holzer’s impact for me, was the universal nature of her “truisms” that adorn each piece of work. These loaded statements grab our attention, and like Barbara Kruger’s tongue-in-cheek phrases and Richard Prince’s “Joke” paintings they allow for a very different way of seeing art that oddly does not have to be purely aesthetic. As for the pieces featured and their relationship to one another, it may be difficult to find a connecting thread between the graffiti and LED signage but it’s rarely more complex than the presence of words. Holzer’s variety of mediums simply suggests how powerful her statements can be regardless of the object or material they lay on.

Sophisticated Devices requires a different way of seeing art, a two-pronged approach that first responds to the visual and second to the statement. Her beautiful granite benches are serious and demand an appreciation for craft but on reading the statement your mouth may curl to a smile. The spray-painted canvas may not fit with your notion of “good art” but on catching the slogan, you may whole-heartedly change your mind.

Whether she’s including you in a joke, attempting to shock or even quietly judging you, you can’t help but be impressed by Holzer’s power to wield words. Although, the show may not pack the visual punch you might be hoping for, it is Holzer’s authority on language and curve ball statement that might just make this one of the most intriguing openings of 2012.

Jenny Holzer: Sophisticated Devices, 01/06/2012 until 28/07/2012, Sprüth Magers, 7A Grafton Street, London, W1S 4EJ.

1. Living: After dark it’s a relief to see a girl… (1981)
Text: Living Series (1980-1982)
Copyright 1981 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY and Sprüth Magers Berlin London.

Text: Karla Evans