Head Over Heels
Kay Rosen: H Is for House
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, CT
March 5 – September 4, 2017
When I experience Kay Rosen’s text-based work, she tickles my inner word-nerd in the mind and heart, oftentimes coaxing a belly laugh. Her current solo exhibition, H Is for House, at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum once again draws out such delight.
Throughout her forty-year career, Rosen, a 2017 Guggenheim Fellow and trained linguist, has explored the visual potential of language—particularly letterforms—to be the building blocks of art that challenge (playfully or critically) contemporary culture’s understanding of words.
“I’ve always been interested in the ability of letters to become the things they represent.” Rosen imparts during an interview. “They become the signified as well as the signifier.”
H Is for House is a collection of two wall paintings and fourteen works on paper. In these two-dimensional works, the words and letters can be read, as well as seen as objects.
In the atrium, viewers are greeted with Head Over Heels (2016), a monumental 16-by-16-foot wall painting. The word “FALLOVER” topples from above, evoking a waterfall, and, as LOVER dives vertically from FAL’s edge, the feeling of falling in love. I’m swooning, as I head into the gallery.
Inside, H Is for House (2017) is a two-part wall painting that covers opposing sides of the main room. On one wall, the H is right side up, large as a local Connecticut cottage, and includes the vertical text “TWO STORY,” with the center of the H dividing the words like a floor between stories. On the opposing wall, the H, flipped on its side, becomes a floor, ceiling, and wall that divides the house and the text “TWO ROOM”—as well as becoming the letter I. Cleverly, the wall painting uses the letterforms as the foundation for a house, this collection, and to spell out a greeting: HI.
Within the house that Rosen has created, visitors are treated to fourteen paintings on 22 ½-by-15-inch white paper that explore the architectural nature of words as objects. Rosen explains that she sought to “combine content and meaning so they merge to say the same thing.” All the while, her works adhere to strict, self-imposed parameters: the letterforms can only span five or six lines; they must stack vertically on horizontal paper, like a portrait, and, with the exception of one work, convey the meaning in black typography—a remarkable departure from her frequent use of bold colors.
I gravitate to Ledge (2015). The word is painted vertically in all-capital letters, the L shifted slightly to the right of EDGE. This creates both a literal edge formed by a recessed block of letterforms, along with the free-falling motion of stepping off a ledge.
“Ledge is one of those self-made words. I think of it as found material,” Rosen remarks “I don’t really do that much to it—except to tweak it a little to make it become the thing that it says it is.”
Similarly, Dangle (2015) reveals the word and its meaning at once. The first letter, D, anchors the word, while ANGLE is rendered beneath in a slanted line. BrowNose (2015) stacks BROW on top of NOSE in a T-formation in brown acrylic gouache, creating facial features as well as chuckle worthy quip. Pivot (2015), rendered twice in parallel lines, is anthropomorphic. Back to back, the letterform bodies stand upright on Ts (legs), while the top letter Ps (heads) face away from one another.
Rosen’s work rose to prominence during the feminist movement’s second wave in the 70s. She sees her work as both an exploration of meaning contained within words—encoded layers of history, privilege, and bias—as well as a space for voicing cultural critique.
In Trickle Down (2015), Rosen paints the letterforms in a drip-like formation. TRICK is spelled out horizontally, LE centered beneath, and DOWN stacked vertically below with one letter on top of another. “All I did was divide it up, string it out, and arrange it,” she explains to reveal that the economic policy, based on the notion that the wealth of those at the top flows down to the rest, is a trick.
In Kay Rosen’s House there is much to discover.
AMY DENESON is a writer in New York via the Heartland. Her reviews of activist art and other essays have contributed to the New York Times, The Guardian, Salon, Bust, Curve magazine, and more. All of her raves can be read at amydeneson.com.