"Eventually Also Add Text:" The Decontextualized Language and Photography of Lisa Holzer

"But yes, but yes!" © Lisa Holzer (full size here)

Post by Chelsey VanderVliet 

I was introduced to the work of Lisa Holzer in March at the New Museum 2015 Triennial, Surround Audience. Her work, featured on the museum's entrance level, behind the cafe alongside a few other artists nearly escaped my view; I imagine it escaped a lot of views, given the location. There were five, maybe six of her pieces on display, pigment prints on cotton paper featuring lengthy, incomprehensible text pieces, swirls of color, blankness. Contained by milky white frames, each print was preserved behind a pane of glass, some of which were marked with haphazard swaths and/or drips of nail polish. From a distance, they read like enlarged pages from the notebook of a creative, aimless teen. In spite of the awkward location, Holzer's work resonated strongly with me; her playful compositions and use of language caught my eye.

Included in the Triennial amongst a somewhat disparate collection of her work were a series of images, all of which share the title But yes, but yes!, where Holzer paired the names of various nail polish shades with descriptions of the hues they represent. Glancing over them, I laughed with my friends when silly names like "Don't Pretzel My Buttons," "bbf boy best friend," and the ever- provocative "My Very First Knockwurst" met my gaze from behind nail polish-obscured panes of glass. *

*Side note: These are all legitimate names of nail polish colors, Holzer did not make them up; in fact, I stumbled upon a bottle of essie's "bbf boy best friend" months ago and bought it, simply because it is referenced in her work.

The titles and descriptions are listed one after another, creating a gross amalgamation of textures, colors, and personalities. Everything is personified, whining for your attention, and for Holzer's attention as the creator of such images. Her work is deceptive, appearing simplistic from afar, yet a closer look reveals a unique sense of humor. Holzer's simplistic style allows her words to stand practically alone, existing within an autonomous space while remaining oblivious to their own meaning and unabashed ridiculousness, hence the element of humor. While the works I encountered at the New Museum Triennial were not photographs, they introduced me to Holzer's practice and ultimately led me to her photographic projects which possess the same vivaciousness that piqued my interest in early spring.

Whether or not Holzer considers her most recent photographic works part of the same series is unknown to me, however they were recently exhibited together at Rowing London in May as part of an exhibition titled Keep All Your Friends.1 Holzer's photographic pieces are enigmatic and frequently incorporate a variety of media, such as text, paint and even stickers, as in the case of a series from 2013. Her use of photography parallels her use of language -- textural, fragmented, and displayed with minimal to no context, like a patchwork quilt. Two multi-media works from 2015 titled Head of a Partisan are prime examples, as they both combine text and photography in a single image, allowing for a direct comparison of her handling of both mediums.

"Head of a Partisan" © Lisa Holzer (full size here)

"Head of a Partisan" © Lisa Holzer (full size here)

While there is an overwhelming painterly quality to these prints, from what I understand, they are photographs of an "open crisp packet that has been imaged upon" with acrylic paint.2 The strokes/smears of paint range from opaque to translucent in quality, and the foundational photographs are abstract, rendering the individual layers of media indistinguishable. Printed on the upper half of each image is the same paragraph, a curated glimpse into Holzer's creative process (note, this is an excerpt, not the entire paragraph):

"Eventually also add text, only a few words repeated and accompanied by fragile symbols of other dingbats? More icing? It's hot. Don't ruin it. They care. They sweat. They matter. Are you? And let them puke! Heads ache...You could take my breath. You took my breath away. Breakfast? My head aches. I'll fail you too. Hold my head, my hand..."

Her overall tone is somewhat coy, inviting and repellent all the same. The subject matter of these works is purposefully indeterminate. Using visceral language, Holzer emphasizes this, providing us with sensory overload -- "more icing?," "(Birthday) party colors gone awry," "tactile drops of sweat," "Let me puke!" Relationships between text and imagery are suggested, yet not defined. Unable to simultaneously process the lushness of either (text or imagery), we are left uncertain of our comprehension skills. We even begin doubting the very materials Holzer claims to have used to create the works themselves. Could it be that those smears of cyan acrylic paint are actually remnants of a child's deconstructed birthday cake? How about the underwhelming beige-ness that serves as the backdrop -- is it vomit? Are these prints documentation of a food fight? Is the food involved pre- or partially-digested?

The significance of these prints lies in how Holzer uses text, rather than what she is saying, which cannot be interpreted literally, even linearly, as the target of her manifesto shifts every few sentences. Holzer writes in a language only she can read, and her employment of the photograph as artistic medium is incomplete and self-referential in much the same way. She avoids the definitive in all aspects of her practice. By removing her subject matter far from its initial context, Holzer draws attention to her use of photography rather than what the photographs are comprised of, illustrating the most sensational aspects of human behavior.

"The Man Who Is Unhappy" © Lisa Holzer (full size here)

"The Man Who Is Unhappy" © Lisa Holzer (full size here)

While the above images retain their photographic clarity, they still exhibit the same ambiguous characteristics found in the Head of a Partisan series, albeit in visually different, yet conceptually similar ways. The Head of a Partisan images rely on nondescript subject matter and grainy image quality to perplex the viewer, whereas these photographs, titled The Man Who Is Unhappy rely on detail and tangibility to do the same.

To get a better idea of what I mean, try this: hold your hand in front of your face, so close that the details -- the veins, lines, freckles, cuts, or scars - are lost. Now, slowly move your hand away from your face until those details are visible again. Make sure not to move your hand so far that you are reminded of the setting you inhabit. Imagine taking two closely-cropped photographs of a section of your hand to represent each observation. Detail, or lack thereof, would be the primary difference between these photographs, however, they wouldn't be that dissimilar -- both would show something decontextualized. Chances are, viewers would be unable to determine where the close-ups of your skin exist in relation to the rest of your hand, or even your entire body. And while the crisp photograph might provide more context, it probably wouldn't provide much more than the soft, blurry one, unless it includes defining features, such as the topography of your knuckles or the life lines on your palm. Head of a Partisan and The Man Who Is Unhappy are analogous to the blurry/clear hand example, respectively. Texture is a reoccurring element in Holzer's photographs, and she uses it to displace us; sometimes it is emphasized, other times it is muted, but muted texture is still texture in its own way.

The subject matter of The Man Who Is Unhappy is melting Camembert cheese.3 And while I cannot speak for the obviousness of this, as I was made aware of it when introduced to the series, the cheese's glossy-yet-jagged topography is mildly displacing; its subtle opalescence mimics oyster shells and pearls. Placing it against a flat white backdrop, Holzer erases its edibility while emphasizing its plasticity. Suspended from the wall, the fate of the cheese is interrupted - it cannot be consumed, nor can it melt or decay. The shadows and highlights that play along its surface are reminiscent of thick brushstrokes, and when viewed alongside either of the Head of a Partisan prints, it's plain to see, the overtly photographic style doesn't differ from the concealed photographic style all that much. When Holzer employes clarity, she does not do it to reveal what it is she is photographing, she does it to toy with sensationalism. These photographs do not necessarily represent cheese, just as the image below does not necessarily represent viscous, yellow shampoo.4

The Pretty Girl © Lisa Holzer (full size here)

There is a sexual element to Holzer's photographic work, as a majority of her compositions are reminiscent of bodily fluids, however it is implied in a tongue in cheek way rather than stated explicitly. Additionally, the eroticism is more humorous and grotesque than alluring or beautiful in nature. Holzer's work doesn't take itself too seriously, which is how it maintains a level of flexibility regarding interpretation. She may mock humanity through her photographs and text pieces, equating breakdowns with birthday parties and unhappy men with soft cheese, but that does not mean she is exempt from her own criticism. In fact, Holzer is very much a part of her own analysis due to the intimate nature of her practice. The squishy, perspiring surfaces she gives us are undeniably humanoid, but they are more than personified messes, they are personified personal messes.

Holzer does not appear physically in her photographs, yet her presence is still felt, not only in her text pieces, but the titles she has derived from French artist, Jean Fautrier ("The Man Who Is Unhappy," "The Pretty Girl," "Head of a Partisan"), that otherwise sound like her own creation.5 Given the lyrical quality of her photographs, language emphasizes the distinct personalities they emit, regardless of whether or not text is actually incorporated. And when paragraphs are overlain, the vividness of her writing plays off the textures exploited (or concealed) photographically. Holzer states that her works “often communicate with one another,” and whether she uses photographs in a traditional manner to emphasize detail and tangibility, or, as a means to an end, as a backdrop, for instance, her work still speaks a unique, self- referential language.6

Chelsey VanderVliet recently graduated with Honors in Studio Art from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. She currently lives and works in Morristown, New Jersey. Working primarily in photography, her work investigates concepts of identity, authenticity, and placement of self. She is fascinated by pathetic imagery, music culture, language as presence, and unease in the familiar. 

1 Lisa Holzer, "Keep All Your Friends," Rowing, accessed August 7th, 2015, http://rowingprojects.com/projects/keep-all-your-friends
2 S. Bee, "Lisa Holzer @ Rowing Reviewed: The open and the opaque," Rowing, accessed August 7th, 2015, http://rowingprojects.com/press/lisa-holzer-keep-all-your-friends
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 "Lisa Holzer Keep All Your Friends," Rowing, accessed August 7th, 2015, http://rowingprojects.com/projects/keep-all-your-friends
6 Quintessa Matranga, "Lisa Holzer Interview," Mission Comics Gallery, accessed August 7th, 2015, http://missioncomicsandartgallery.tumblr.com/lisaholzerinterview