June 27, 2014
by Heather Zises
Renowned for her text-based works, American artist Kay Rosen uses language as her primary material and subject for her paintings, drawings, editions, and installations. By playing with different approaches to typography and layout, format and scale, space and color, Rosen’s compositions explore the many avenues of language and how it can be represented visually. While a proclivity for puns and vernacular wit allude to the artist’s background in language and linguistics, the adroit use of words as objects and icons reinforces Rosen’s role as an artist who has mastered the interplay between visual and verbal realms.
An exhibition of Rosen’s new works Blingo, is on view at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. from May 16 through June 28, 2014. Comprised of acrylic, gouache paintings on watercolor paper, enamel sign painting on canvases and one latex paint wall installation—this current series represents a shift in the way that Rosen constructs relationships between the text and the support. Instead of conforming the size and shape of the canvas or paper to accommodate text, letters and words are customized to fit the picture plane. By placing more focus on the space around the text, Rosen establishes an equal dialogue between content and site. For example, the wall painting Monuments, which is prominently displayed in the entry gallery, equally engages the wall space in two directions. The word “obelisk” is painted vertically from floor to ceiling, just like an upright pillar, and the word “odalisk” sweeps horizontally across the wall, just like a reclining figure on a chaise. Gracefully hinged to each other at the letter “S”, the two words create a fine tension and conceptual harmony through their seamless integration. Rosen states: “Vertical does not trump horizontal; nor upright, prostrate. Male does not trump female. Sculpture does not trump painting. The representation of both ODALISKS and OBELISKS throughout the history of art is equally iconic and illustrious. Any perceived hierarchy is supplied by the viewer.”
Many of Rosen’s word constructions are built upon instrumental pairs that function as a hub of exchange. Through structure and meaning, individual letters offer linguistic evidence that they are also the subjects themselves. Typographical ascenders and descenders, doubled letters, mirror images, and word orientation tend to recall concrete poetry arrangements, but upon closer examination, they serve as visual cues that invite the viewer to consider new ways of reading language. Basic words gain autonomy as signs once they are recontextualized into the pictorial realm. As a result, Rosen’s compositions become activated with vibrant tones of semiotics and semantics. Across the wall from Monuments hangs Marooned: the inaugural piece in the series that began a new dialogue between space and text for the artist. Rosen deliberately outfits the word “marooned” with vast borders of blank paper to underscore its deep isolation in the composition. The burgundy, non-serif letters seem to lay insufferably still like a ship that has unexpectedly encountered shallow waters. While the first three letters of the word “MAR” function as a foreshadowing of murky doom, the last letter “D”—which resembles the stern of a vessel—suggests imminent abandon, especially considering that the only viable option for escape are a pair of lifeboats (as suggested by the doubled letter “O”) are hopelessly wedged into the center of the word.
In the main gallery, the walls are neatly arranged with ten other works that quietly invite the viewer to engage in wordplay. In Parrot, the grammatical ambiguity between noun and verb creates wonderful slippage between the two. To reinforce the idea of the word as a verb, two rows of letters are vertically arranged in parallel lines that mirror one another. Alternately, “parrot” transforms into a noun through the extra doubling of the letter “R” in the middle line, which conjures the idea of a single bird trilling with a broad, lime green wingspan. Perhaps the most cinematic work in the series is the painting Steps. By dividing the proper name “Fred Astaire” into a series of uneven red-letter planes that diagonally descend from the upper-left corner to the lower-right corner, the work becomes an architectural space. At a glance, the phrase “Red Stair” pops out at the viewer, suggesting famous steps on a red carpet or bleary eyes from too many late nights of Hollywood celebration. The work also maintains a performative aspect, which is created by tiers of text that resist a fluid reading upon first glimpse. In order to decipher the message, the viewer must reduce their reading speed and adopt a rhythmic pace in order to follow Fred Astaire waltzing down the steps of his own name.
The namesake of the show, Blingo, refers to a digital word game of Bingo popularized by Facebook. Like the standard version, this electronic iteration uses gridded playing cards with letters in the top row and numbers that populate the rest of the allotted boxes. However, the game has been noticeably updated with jolts of flashing color and animated mascots. Although Rosen makes an overt digital detour by keeping her work “analog”, it is possible that she is challenging her practice by appropriating aspects of contemporary awareness into her current series. Works like LOL, whose giggly letters bounce off the baseline with a rapidfire ricochet of “HA”, and *Risk, whose composition resembles a text message with its clever shorthand and shared root word “Aster”, would indicate an inevitable pull into the Millennial sphere. In this digital world, the screens upon which we currently read, write, and communicate tend to be smaller in scale, but remarkably efficient. In order to adhere to this strange phenomenon, perhaps Rosen subconsciously economized her use of text and space to customize her own visual platform.