Jenny Holzer’s Chilling Paintings Explore Government Abuses During the War on Terror

Tess Thackara
Sep 10, 2014 5:47PM

Jenny Holzer, an artist long known for employing the power and presence of words as her primary tool, has in recent years homed her practice in on language used to conceal and omit. Best known for bold statements—including her famous “Truisms”—delivered to audiences in the form of undulating light streams or projected onto public buildings, Holzer has, over the past decade, taken on a more granular subject, namely the role of language in the murky ethical force-field that has been the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mining declassified government memos whose sobering details lay bare the abuses of U.S. forces, Holzer transforms these into semi-abstract silkscreens, with geometric color fields in place of blotted-out passages of text.

Now, in her “Dust Paintings,” a new series of works exhibited at Cheim & Read this month—which takes its name from ghubar, or “dust writing” in English, a form of traditional Arabic calligraphy—Holzer once again takes as her basis documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Included are censored texts from the CIA and FBI, and a U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Report detailing the conditions that led to the death of an Afghan prisoner, Jamal Naseer, in the custody of the U.S. military, which Holzer traces and transfers, before turning them into the grounds for mesmerizing, hand-wrought paintings. Marking a turn for the artist—away from digital lyricism and back toward painting by hand (where Holzer’s artistic career began), she recreates these chilling documents in oil-on-linen, in some cases blowing up fragments of cursive written in broken English by detainees that read “tortured,” “not guilty,” and “That is whay...Jamal die.”

In Terrorist Group (2013), patterns of frayed color mimic inky government omissions and suggest terrorist cells creeping across the picture plane, pointing to a symbiotic relationship between the U.S. government’s aggressive foreign policies and the spread of Islamic extremism—which strikes a particularly eerie note in the current moment. In Assets and Activities 13 (2013), oblong, yellow and blue-gray blocks of color concealing traces of an underlying document seem to reverberate with the force of what lies beneath. Accentuating the nefarious patterns and abstractions embedded in these corrupted documents, Holzer creates a poignant, symbolic vocabulary for the government’s shady activities and culture of secrecy, delivering a powerful message with unflinching clarity—what Holzer does best.

Tess Thackara

Jenny Holzer: Dust Paintings” is on view at Cheim & Read, New York, Sept. 11th–Oct. 25th, 2014.

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