Raise boys and girls the same. Protect me from what I want. Abuse of power comes as no surprise.
Imagine these phrases placed on T-shirts and posters. Imagine them winding in LED letters around the curves of the Guggenheim museum in New York. Imagine them in huge letters, projected and sliding over the pyramid outside the Louvre museum in Paris.
These are the pieces artist Jenny Holzer has created over the last three decades of her career. And Tuesday night, this prolific and legendary artist spoke to a cozy group under a tent on the lawn of the Fisher Museum of Art.
“Off with the lights, on with the show,” were the words Holzer uttered as the lights dimmed and she walked the audience through a slide show of her impressive work. As she revealed the inspiration behind her works, she also revealed the humility, humor and passion that make her a significant artist
Holzer revealed she didn’t feel her painting skills were up to par, which led to the idea of working with text as art.
“I turned to language and the adventure began,” said Holzer.
Though many of her later works were officially commissioned or done with permission from museums, buildings and advertising spaces, her journey started out as that of most street artists. In fact, she worked closely with graffiti and street artists throughout her years as an artist.
When she crafted T-shirts, one proud wearer included Lady Pink, one of the few famous female graffiti artists. Holzer also teamed up with Keith Haring, another big graffiti art figure, known for his unique, caricature-like figures. Holzer has also worked with important art figures such as Barbara Kruger and Claes Oldenburg.
But the way she uses text to reach out to her audience is all her own. Her early works are made up of things she wrote herself until she started collaborating with poets such as Henri Cole.
“I never could write the way I wanted to but while I did, it let me get the subject matter present, if not ideal,” Holzer said. “[With the poets’ work] I could present a greater range of subject matter, not to mention emotions, than one person could muster.”
In fact, emotion is a big part of Holzer’s works. Her statements challenge the passerby to reassess things about society, whether it be issues about gender or war. Holzer has used her art to reach as many people as possible, carefully choosing the locations in which to put her works.
“I like places in the postcard setting. I like my art to work for people walking by not intending to see art,” Holzer said.
From her giant projections to her LED creations, Holzer makes her chosen text come alive and pays close attention to the way in which each medium will present the text.
“One wonderful thing about electronics is that they have big brains,” Holzer said. “Even people who are stuck [at the same location] every day won’t see the same thing. The projections don’t have any of the associations of the electronics. They’re about soft, white light and reading together.”
Despite her works being displayed all around the world, you don’t have to travel far to see Holzer’s work. Right outside the Fisher Museum is her piece “Blacklist,” a series of text on granite benches and steps.
The piece is a memorial to the Hollywood Ten and the time in which people involved in the entertainment industry were blacklisted for expressing certain beliefs. Holzer researched the subject and also spoke to people who were blacklisted and their families.
The piece took a while to be undertaken and was not universally accepted because it seemed so leftist. Yet Holzer made sure to include both sides of the issue.
“I didn’t think the memorial would make sense if the opposition or the people on the fence weren’t included,” Holzer said. “It would be like pushing against air.”
Holzer has now moved on to painting and no longer creates works that include her own writing. Upon being asked if she would ever return to writing, Holzer responded with her trademark humor.
“I try to be funny in e-mails but that’s about it.”