Chicago

Jenny Holzer

Rhona Hoffman Gallery

One of the key terms from the ’60s has a renewed significance in the art world of the ’80s. The term is “co-optation,” the ability of mainstream, capitalist culture to appropriate any idea, no matter how avant-garde or radical, for its own pleasure and profit. When Jenny Holzer pasted on building walls or hung in bank windows the dictionary of clichés she called “Truisms,” she turned the tables on the co-opters. Holzer’s unique form of corporate raiding peaked with her appropriation of a whole new mass medium, electronic signs, on which she has displayed her word art from Times Square to the Las Vegas strip. Lately, she has begun anonymously buying TV spots in targeted markets around the country.

But for her, as for other street artists like Keith Flaring, recognition has brought with it access to the galleries, an elitist world in which their populist work occupies a somewhat uneasy place. Holzer herself conceded in a recent interview that “selling my work to wealthy people can be like giving little thrills to the people I’m sometimes criticizing,” to which she added, with bland understatement worthy of one of her own pieces, “So that’s not particularly clean.” Her dilemma is shared by other female artists, such as Barbara Kruger and Sue Coe, whose work reflects their social consciousness. As the art world has drawn closer to the mainstream culture in recent decades, the relationship between the two has become hopelessly paradoxical. Finally making it in the galleries can now be the greatest professional crisis for many artists, the one career move likely to compromise their work. Co-optation has become a two–way street, or rather an expressway on which the fast lane may suddenly reverse direction at rush hour.

With the project seen in this show, Under a Rock, 1987, Holzer takes a first, tentative step toward dealing with the problem. The work here is an installation piece that consists of one of her electronic signs on a wall opposite five benches of polished granite. Parts of the text running continuously on the sign have been carved into the benches. The bench slabs suggest gravestones, monuments, or other historical artifacts on which such words aspire to timelessness, whereas the sign suggests news, advertisements, and other messages with a uniquely modern transience. Sitting on the benches reading the sign is a bit like sitting in church, in a theater watching a movie, or at a brokerage house monitoring the ticker tape. The patterns that the words make on the sign also bring to mind other settings. One passage is formed by little blips of light in grids that tick on like the departure information on the announcement board at an airlines terminal. For another, the letters fall into place like the symbols on a slot machine. A third manipulates the letters like the video graphics of a TV commercial.

When she works in a public place like Times Square, the environment for the piece is a given. In fact, it’s crucial to her art, which requires the competition of other signs and advertisements for the viewer’s attention. Her texts have to become an unexpected and disconcerting part of that environment to have any impact. But in a gallery, the work is neutralized. There she must create the environment as well as the messages if they are to have any meaning. This is what Under a Rock attempts to do. The installation is a recognition that just putting a sign in a gallery is inadequate. She has to appropriate the whole space, to surround her high-capitalist audience in order to be sure she has outflanked the people in it who have come only to luxuriate in her alienation.

The only limitation on what she has achieved here is indicated by the fact that I have been able to describe that achievement without mentioning what the text for her piece actually says. There are ten passages, each containing a vignette like a tiny chapter in an experimental mininovel. They deal alternately with scenes of sex and terrorism. But the language is so bland and the action so abbreviated that the medium alone seems to be the message. The text is little more than a kind of intellectual white noise. The most that can be said for it is that it does resonate with its context in a peculiar way. It, too, evokes myriad possibilities without reconciling any of them.

Colin Wesrbeck