This is the first solo institutional exhibition of work by American artist Kay Rosen in Canada. Renowned for her textbased works, presented across a range of formats and scales, Rosen uses space and colour to assert the physical property of language and elaborate new meaning from familiar phrases, often with characteristic wry humour. For Rosen words are both subject and material; playing with their visual representations through meticulously considered typography, colour and layout, she employs puns, anagrams and vernacular phrases to create visual connections which examine the structures and mechanisms of language as well as our encounters with it. Before becoming a visual artist, Rosen studied comparative and applied linguistics, a background which continues to inform her thinking.
For this new commission, Rosen has created two new works including a large-scale intervention across the front of the building. CUTOUT is just that, a formal play on double meaning that quite literally describes the very action and construction of its making. Letters are reversely cut from sheets of coloured vinyl, using the black appearance of the window glass itself to define their form and enabling the cut out letters to become what they spell. Furthermore, Rosen makes a simple cut into one letter of a word to generate another. Deceptively straightforward, in this way the ‘C’ from ‘cut’ was once an ‘O’ that formed the word ‘out.’ Both emphasizing and tracing this action, dashed lines mark the area removed.
Rosen often renders something that was once invisible visible. For example, a simple colour change of the two last letters in ABCDEFGHI in the mural Hi (1998) exposes a pre-existent word within the systematic order of the first nine letters of the alphabet. This slight shift of emphasis has the potential to affect pronunciation, turning our usual listing of letters into ABCDEFG ‘Hi.’ Different versions of this work have also used the physical properties of a building to reveal the alphabet’s potential to form words through minimal gesture; in this case by segregating ‘H’ and ‘I’ from the rest of the letters around an outside corner. Whereas the poetics in Rosen’s work position it within the lineage of Concrete Poetry where linguistic signs form the structure of an object or picture to be perceived rather than a text to be read, her work is equally grounded within conceptual practice. Situated around the corner from CUTOUT, a second work reveals a different aspect of Rosen’s practice. Visual presentation is not used to merely emphasize specific meaning, but to articulate formal gestures that unfold spatially over time. Where one piece is focused on ‘rescuing words from meaning’ the other uses language to generate strong imagery, making evident the social structures that determine its reading.
While a formal syntactical interpretation dominates much of the discourse surrounding Rosen’s work, many pieces convey political comment. Duck in the Muck (aka Exxon Axxident) from 1989, has been remade in a new version for one of our picture windows. Originally a list of ten different spellings of ‘Duck in the Muck’ alternating with an equal number of misspelled ‘Quacks’, for the Contemporary Art Gallery, Rosen has reduced the text, added vibrant layers of colour, and uses the window frame as a means to divide the text into six component parts: one duck in the muck surrounded by variant quacks. Although the title references the Exxon Valdez crude oil spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989, Rosen has chosen the work for its topical relevance to this part of the world. As a vast and extensive system of oil pipelines stretching from Alberta across British Columbia and into the United States are being established, Rosen draws our attention to recent history, and an image of potential dangers to come.