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Jenny

Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman Jessica Chalmers Published in Flash Art (Italy) June 1997 The most important women artists of the 1980s were not tampax artists like some of their late '60's and '70s foremothers. They did not paint or mold vulva-like forms in honor of women in general or in honor of particular ones like Judy Chicago and Hannah Wilke did. They were not activists -- nor did they talk much about feminism at all. Their work was, however, absolutely crucial along with the work of others such as Sherrie Levine and Mary Kelly to feminist discourse in the 1980s. Seen as being on a par with the rigor of contemporary theoretical writing, the intellectual impulse behind Jenny Holzer's truisms, Barbara Kruger's collages, and Cindy Sherman's film stills was generally considered to be about (re)presenting the female body within a critique of masculinist or phallocentric ideology. In particular, Kruger's patchwork of clichd images collaged from various found sources and Sherman's use of her own image were seen as commentary on available modes of self-representation for women. If, at the time, power in general was beginning to be understood as operating through media enforcement of stereotypes rather than purely through economic means -- these artists, masters or mistresses of the ide reu, of the advertising image and slogan, of Hollywood iconography -- were understood as deploying the irony of clich against that power. Jenny Holzer is a sentence artist long devoted to placing writing in places outside the museum and gallery - public places where passersby don't expect to be addressed as anything but as consumers or voters, if at all: low along the rim of a baggage carrousel (Mccarran Airport, Las Vegas. 1986), in among the anonymous neon advertisements of Times Square (1982) or downtown Las Vegas (1986), or on parking meters or a garbage can lid (Philadelphia and New York, 1983). Like advertising copy, Holzer's sentences are aimed at stopping people who are going obliviously about their daily lives -- and inducing them to read. Unlike ad copy, however, her words come unadorned by any image and unmotivated by any obvious material end. In 1989, Holzer told Diane Waldeman: "I knew it was theoretically possible to leave things for people and you could actually stop them in their tracks." As a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design, she left pieces of paintings lying around outside for people to find. In 1977, after enrolling in the Whitney
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Museum's Independent Study Program, what she began to leave around were the sentences and fragments she called truisms, sentences that remain the basis of her work to this day. It comes as no surprise, then, that Holzer's most interesting recent work ventures on line, onto the Internet -- that "place" which is at present being tauted as being or possessing the potential for being the most public and accessible international crossroads in history. Her project, entitled Please Change Beliefs, can be found on da 'web (http://adaweb.com), a site devoted to producing and housing on-line projects by artists such as Holzer, Julia Scher, Lawrence Wiener, Vivian Selbo, and others. In Holzer's on-line project, her sentences -- many if not all of which we have seen previously in her earlier work have new life as hypertext links. In the point-and-click world of HTML, Holzer's words can do more than communicate: they act as buttons that can be clicked on in order to reach other sentence/buttons in the form of Truisms, Inflammatory Essays (from work done in and around 1984)and other Holzer genres. As with her LED signs, reading is controlled by the artist and occasionally frustrated. Her LED signs are programmed for quick passage, synchronized flashing, among other effects. Here, too, you are not permitted to linger over a truism. Discouraging contemplation, the blinking on-line text changes almost, yet not quite, faster than you can read it. Holzer may want to stop people in their tracks, but encouraging the kind of careful, time-consuming reading that one is usually encouraged to give to poems and other literary work is not what this work is about either. A new aspect of the work is its interactivity. You are asked to choose one out of a list of truisms, alter it in the space provided, and, having clicked on the proper button to indicate that you are finished, you are moved to another page where you find your newly-minted saying added to a master list of both altered and unaltered truisms. Some of the altered truisms in fact manage to capture the tersely ironic Holzer style -- the impersonal, faux- ageless, sounds-like-a-clich of her truisms. Some fail to capture her style, some do not try to capture her style, and others mock it. The da 'web truism master list is a Borgesian catalogue of possibilities whose interest lies in the fact that it records an on-going tribute to Holzer as the initiator of a particular form writing. This is a form of writing whose politics is expressed through slogans, slogans whose difference from other slogans (it becomes clear) is only a matter of minute syntactical adjustment. This is sad art, revealing -- in spite of any possible democratic motive on Holzer's part -- the ephemeral quality of political
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commitment and political language and the arbitrary factors that determine political interlocutors. For example, in the following (very partial) list generated by the Holzer truism RAISE BOYS AND BOYS THE SAME WAY on da 'web, a kind of inadvertent conversation or argument around gender has emerged. Mixing humor with conviction, the argument is without fire, having taken place between slogans which, for the most part, were probably added to the master list only blindly, without foreknowledge of the other entries on the list: RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS AS BOYS AND GIRLS RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS ON DIFFERENT DAYS RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS THE SAME WAY AS CABBAGES RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS TO BE WHO THEY ARE RAISE GIRLS AS IF THEY ARE BETTER THAN BOYS Since their heyday in the 1980s, Barbara Kruger's name has been frequently linked to Jenny Holzer's because of their shared commitment to borrowing from commercial culture in order to critique it. A commercial artist in the '70s for Conde Nast publications, Kruger's best-known art of the '80s appropriated images from her day job. One thinks immediately of her 1989 poster for a march on Washington in support of Roe v. Wade, "Your Body is a Battleground." Or the attractive face of a reclining woman, leaves covering closed eyes: "We Won't Play Nature to Your Culture." Kruger's slogans are catchier than the Holzer truisms, and less ambiguous in their intention to mock and provoke. "What Big Muscles You Have!" reads one. And on the silhouette of a woman bent over with pins sticking in her all down her back: "We Have Received Orders Not to Move." Her feminism is a politics of the "we" and the "you" of the "we" women and a "you" posited as a conflation of men and the image-power of advertising. In the 1980s, Kruger enjoyed -- as did Cindy Sherman -- the acclaim of critics like Craig Owens, who saw the work in terms of contemporary philosophical paradigms about power and spectacle. For instance, in Owens' essay "The Medusa Effect or, The Spectacular Ruse," he credits Kruger's appropriation of advertising strategies and images with the power to disturb mass cultural control over representation. Citing Roland Barthes, whose book on reading mass culture, The Fashion System, was published in translation in the United States
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in 1983, Owens proposes Kruger as a political artist. If commercial culture, he writes, derives its power from the use of stereotypes -- and gender stereotypes in particular --, then a practice that intervened in the automatic acceptance of those stereotypes would end by exposing the secret rule of the ideology that spawned them. Kruger's pointed texts and re- presented images were seen as creating just the kind of distancing between the eye of the beholder and the seductive, oppressive stereotypes of advertising. Kruger's recent work continues to address the darker side of advertising, although it is not clear where the politics of appropriation lead to in the nineties, when popular culture and advertising are themselves more self-critical and diverse than they were ten to fifteen years ago. At a 1996 exhibition in Melbourne, Kruger took up three rooms of the Heide Modern Art Museum with an exhibit that included an audio component. On the walls of one of the rooms, there were written commands whose tone was restlessly pleading and dissatisfied: "Don't hate me. Don't leave me alone. Don't kill me. Don't be a jerk." There were questions: "What are you looking at? Why are you here? What did you say? Who do you think you are?" Several complex photomontages, again in black and white, of crowds and larger faces also figure on the Heide web page that commemorates the exhibition. "Hate like us," reads one. "Look like us," reads another. Two installations in New York during the nineties also took this familiar, confrontational approach. Drawing on the style and strategy of the early successful work, Kruger seems to have reacted only slightly to changes in the American popular and intellectual landscape. Of course, it is not possible to say for sure whether Kruger's perseverance is simply a lack of sensitivity to her environment or if it reflects, on the contrary, a greater sensitivity to the persistence of a static ideological structure beneath what only seems to be a diversified commercial field. Cindy Sherman, who graced the late seventies and eighties with her spectacular untitled film stills, lent glamour and nostalgia to the discourse of feminist appropriation. There was, first of all, her intriguing use of herself as a model. To understand the magic of this, it is necessary to view her work in groups so as to see the way in which her look changed through the manipulation of light and makeup. Her photos show a girl or a woman, caught in a moment of distraction, the fascination of her presence in part a result of the implication of an absent narrative. In many, she has the look of a starlet; in others, she takes on a full range of lesser feminine characters: the career girl, the housewife, the beaten wife.
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In each stylized pose, no matter if she appears as a sexual tease, in starlet guise -- or bruised, crying, or just in the midst of daily work Sherman recreates herself in quotations, the irony of her "as if" a commentary on the construction of female identity through media. Often discussed in conjunction with Laura Mulvey's 1973 article on Hollywood's complicity with male voyeurism and fetishism, Sherman's film stills describe, like the article, the predicament of female self-representation. Sherman's work has always tended towards horror, if only in the form of a nostalgic citation of cinematic conventions. In the film stills, the lone female figure often seems vulnerable to attack -- standing waiting by the side of a road (Untitled Film Still #48. 1979); putting up her collar as she walks alone in the cold (Untitled Film Still #54. 1980); or turning, startled and frowning, to catch the gaze of the viewer in Untitled Film Still #63 (1980). Often, she has the spunky or distracted look of a girl who only vaguely senses what the audience already knows: that she is about to confront some lurking threat. When, beginning in the early- to mid-eighties, the horror became explicit in Sherman's work, many fans were disappointed. Instead of the elegant, mostly black-and-white stills, in 1986-90 there developed a steady stream of bile and goo, vomit, decay, obscene sexual dolls, ominous fairy tale images, and, most recently, masks. One of the most striking works is an extreme, golden face (Untitled #327. 1995), part of which or all of which is mask, and part of which or all of which is synthetic. The gold face is wide-eyed, wide-mouthed, and seems to be calling out forcefully rather than screaming. More masculine-appearing than feminine, and more the androgynous cyborg than gendered human, it has the look of a strange god in some kind of inexplicable pain. A narrative that would make sense of its pain, however, is not implied through the citation of cinematic conventions as you would expect in the earlier work. Rather, there is a sense of new pain, illegible within a fractured, uncinematic Real. To Hal Foster, Sherman's "disgust" work coincides with a dominant or growing sense of the real defined as trauma. However, there have been intermediate steps. One shot -- in which Sherman appears as a reflection in sunglasses left in a mess of things and goo (Untitled #175. 1987) serves to link the disgust work with the early film stills. In a sick blue light, you see something like a beach scene, with a rumpled towel, dirty hat, and various non-specific lumps and out-of-focus shapes. There is still a cinematic quality here, but the specificity of certain repellent details and the particularity of the bluish light hints at the
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garish quality of later, even more vivid shots. Later, her vomit scenes lose all reference outside of their own fuzzy, meaty, or semi-liquid material. Ultimately, in Sherman's work, horror becomes a vivid display rather than a suggestion of psychological terrors and (masculine) things lurking outside the margins of the camera's frame. The mask-work and the perverse dolls, too, preserve this sense of the indiscreet and of confrontation, presenting the ugly details of their patched-together faces and bodies as if relishing their absolute contradiction of idealized femininity. Unlike Holzer and Kruger, Sherman's later work forgoes the discourse of appropriation-as-subversion that made her name in the late '70s and early '80s. However, Holzer and Kruger, whose present work does not differ as substantially from the work that made them famous in the '80s as subversive artists, do not thereby retain this status in the context in which their work is now read. This is not to say that at least Sherman and Holzer are not actively engaged in the most critical issues of today. Kruger may only be repeating a successful formula from the past -- but Holzer, who has also recently ventured into the off- line interactive realm of virtual reality environments, and Sherman, who is purportedly in the process of making a slasher film with Miramax, have not lost any of their early nerve. Rather, their loss of subversive impact reflects changes in American culture, changes in the relationship between culture and politics -- and between the commercial realms of Hollywood and advertising and what used to be called "alternative" culture. In a world losing its sense of the mainstream, ironic quotation of genre or stereotype can no longer function as salient politics. And, in a world in which everything, including politics, is aestheticized, rebellions against visual fetishization such as Sherman's horror and disgust art, -- and also mourning work of the sort that Holzer created recently in Lustmord and Black Garden -- make more sense. At the end of a century, prognoses for historical change are typically grim. At the end of this millennium, prognosis itself seems burnt out through overuse in advertising and journalism. How can any artist hope to play the role of social conscience in such a context? In a live on-line interview on HotWired, Holzer was asked if she "had anything" short enough for a license place. "I would love to share a truism with everyone I share the highway with," typed the visitor. Holzer answered quickly. "How about THE FUTURE IS STUPID," she typed, " - sans vowels?"
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