Best in show

Inflammatory Essays, (1979), by Jenny Holzer, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
Interview by John Holt
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Julia Carver

“With works selected from Artist Rooms – Anthony d’Offay’s gift of more than 1,100 artworks to the nation – this exhibition features four conceptual artists [Jenny Holzer, Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha and Lawrence Weiner] who have contributed to the changing nature of art, the formats it can take, what it can be made of and where it can happen.

We’re particularly focusing on the use of language and text, and Holzer is an artist who took the written word into the public realm with her early work, Truisms.

This series of slogans was originally reproduced on posters, T-shirts and stickers, and is shown in our gallery on a scrolling LED sign.

The short statements from sources that include Freud, Marx and feminist writers are displayed alphabetically and provide the viewer with contradictory messages.

Keen to make art that people would stumble across in public places, Holzer later produced Inflammatory Essays, a series of 29 100-word texts which she fly-posted around New York’s Bleecker Street area.

She was exploring the idea of a manifesto as a statement of intent, using some of the radical language of the time. This results in a clamour of voices competing for your attention in the way the mass media does today.

I like the description of it as ‘rapturous writing’. She talked about her interest in Wuthering Heights and the more sinister side of William Blake, along with the idea of writing in a heightened psychic state such as Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater.

Holzer’s work also reminds me of writers from the era of the dirty realists such as Jayne Anne Phillips, who developed a contemporary American gothic that picked up on the blue-collar constituency of the time.

Holzer worked at a very interesting point in New York’s history before the real estate development began. It was a time when artists and musicians moved into lost areas to create and subvert what was possible in a bankrupt city.”

Raw Materials: Four American Artists, 1972 to 2007, runs until 23 September

Julia Carver is a collections officer, visual art, at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery



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