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Home Entertainment Review | At the Hirshhorn, Jessica Diamond’s not-so-offhand scribblings

Review | At the Hirshhorn, Jessica Diamond’s not-so-offhand scribblings

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Turn on, tune in and drop out: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has entered its boomer era.

For the past few years, the museum has opened its doors to a specific generation of iconoclasts. These artists reject traditional craft, or make use of it only insofar as it helps them deliver a point. For this set, the medium is the message — and vice versa.

Jessica Diamond, 66, is the latest counterculture star from this text-based post-post-war era to grace the walls of the Hirshhorn. Her paintings, if that’s the word for them, evoke poetry with long spans of verse or short cryptic phrases. For “Wheel of Life,” a solo exhibition occupying the entire inner ring of the second floor at the doughnut-shaped museum building, her presentation often involves little more than the decision about what font to use.

For a certain generation of artists — among them Jenny Holzer, Ed Ruscha and Bruce Nauman — that decision is more than enough.

This showcase of Diamond’s work might be more illuminating — or, alternatively, more vexing — if the museum weren’t simultaneously showing work by two of her closest New York peers. Barbara Kruger’s “Belief+Doubt,” on view in the museum’s reformatted lower level since 2012, is a fan-favorite immersive installation of the 78-year-old artist’s all-caps slogans. Laurie Anderson’s “Four Talks” (2021) is another allover text installation, this one more mystical than slick, designed specially for the 76-year-old artist’s recent retrospective, “The Weather.”

Both Kruger’s and Anderson’s site-specific installations are here for the foreseeable future, and at their scale, there’s not much chance of visitors missing them. If this lineup weren’t enough, in 2018 the Hirshhorn also mounted “Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s,” a statement show by curators Gianni Jetzer and Sandy Guttman on artists responding to consumerism and mass media — about as close to a boomer thesis as there could be.

Indeed, museum-goers might remember Diamond’s “T.V. Telepathy” (1989), a wall-size painting of the words “Eat Sugar Spend Money” that enjoyed pride of place in the “Brand New” survey. None of the works in “Wheel of Life” are quite as iconic as that perfect saccharine commandment, which makes this show a doubly odd choice as a follow-up.

Compared with some other artists who work with text, Diamond favors an approach that makes it look as though she’s barely trying. The text for “The Law Of Status* and a Nonpareil Cat (*Thorstein Veblen 1899),” an acrylic and latex painting from 2018, spells out a phrase that might have been dashed out on a sticky note. Below this handwritten aphorism — “The law of status is the dominant feature in the scheme of life” — is a crude drawing of an orange house cat that resembles Andy Warhol. Taken together with the title’s reference to Veblen — a turn-of-the-century American economist who coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” — this piece shows Diamond wrestling with one of the central preoccupations of the boomer generation, even if Diamond’s take looks half-cocked.

Diamond’s work is more casual than Kruger’s billboard blitzes or Anderson’s sketchbook daydreams, but it’s no less sophisticated. At times, Diamond embraces text as a straightforward narrative device: For example, she delivers six stanzas of verse against a blue background for “Words at Play: A Circle Thing (Thoreau, Thoreau, Thoreau …) #2” (2018/2023). Yet other pieces suggest a more conceptual bent. A textbook minimalist painting, “Ellipsis (3 Circles)” (2021/2023) can be both read and viewed. Like another text-based great, Lawrence Weiner, Diamond likes mining the gap between using text as symbol and using text as form.

Most of the works on view register at the same temperature: a plane of bold color with a passage of text in one of a handful of fonts. “M3 (In Life, Money)” (2019/2023), however, is a straight-up abstract painting, out of place amid so much handwriting. The gold wall painting looks like a series of logos chopped up and reassembled into something just short of legible. The piece gives up the game: If it wasn’t clear already, Diamond is painting, not writing.

“Goodbye Edward Hopper” (2019/2023) shows the artist at her best. The piece comprises a breezy phrase painted near the museum’s ceiling. The words are slanted to the point of being animated, as if they were blowing away. The text reads as braggadocio, the words of an artist dismissing a modern master as a bygone. Yet the letters spelling out the claim are skinny and frail, which suggests a ruefulness about the whole enterprise. It’s an irreverent gesture, a snort of a painting, but one that carries with it perhaps a wistfulness about a more innocent time in art history.

“Wheel of Life” comes after so many similar shows that have put an exclamation point on themes of media saturation and commercial consumerism, however, that the Hirshhorn risks conducting the very phenomenon that it is exploring. There is such a thing as too much work about mass consumption, and this latest show tips into overindulgence.

Jessica Diamond: Wheel of Life

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW. hirshhorn.si.edu.



POST AUTHOR: Kriston Capps

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