Alexander Gray Associates presented Kay Rosen: Stirring Wirds, the artist’s first exhibition with the Gallery. Focused on recent work, the exhibition underscored a political conscience that grounds Rosen’s five decade career exploring the use of language and text.
Rosen’s work mines the visual characteristics of words and letters, typography, and syntax. Extensive research and experimentation results in deceptively simple graphic works, where form and meaning interplay. She creates precisely crafted canvases, works on paper, wall paintings, prints, collages, and videos that engage the viewer with a word game, or an elemental sign. It is after a first read, however, that Rosen’s artistry emerges: through a process of reading, her words become images with unfolding and multifold meanings and narratives. Throughout her works, Rosen deploys language as found material, pushing content and form to guide one another. As writer Rhonda Lieberman describes, Rosen “sets herself up as the revealer of language, but sidesteps the role of its consciousness.”
Anchoring the presentation were two wall murals. Installed in the ground floor gallery was Trickle Down (2016/18) an obelisk of text with “TRICK” as the topmost row, and the subsequent letters cascading down as a central column beneath. With this work, Rosen responds to current economic policies in the U.S., connecting the present moment to histories of deception and stratification. In the second floor gallery, the enormously-scaled wall painting White House v. America (2018), impacted with more aggression and visual heft. In this work, the letters abbreviate and exclaim the divisive political moment. Rosen, speaking of her impetus with the political context of current work explains. “In the past I have gone where the language has led me, but in these times, out of priorities, anger, and urgency, I have made artworks whose texts pertain in some way only to the current political situation.” Rosen’s political concerns are not myopic, nor are they directed at a single figure. Rather, they point to the systemic structures that have put human rights at great risk, and a framework in which political events and communities define one another. In a selection of two smaller paintings on canvas and seven new acrylic gouache works on paper, Rosen has challenged and reinvigorated her long-held ways of working; she has changed her font of twenty years and introduced a newly translucent application of paint. Referencing the birthplace of the LGBTQIA movement, Stonewall (2017) consists of the title’s letters arranged in a stacked form, convening a group of individuals into a crowd, and demonstrating solidarity of “one” and “all.” The injustices enacted against indigenous peoples are described in IOU (2017); through color and design, Rosen illustrates economic injustice and geographic formations that evoke the legacies of colonialism and imperialism.
Rosen’s exploration of political frameworks dates to the 1980s, and earlier works reinforce that political cycles are a constant. Trickle Down (2016/18) was presented alongside Uh Oh Eek (1986), expressing discomfort of the Reagan era and its policies. As the artist explains, the open-endedness of works which do not identify specific perpetrators, “provide a sympathetic verbal framework in which to insert any despot, thug, racist, idiot, villain, and their followers, or you-name-it national/global disaster. Viewers, as mutual users of language and co-participants in the shared fallout from worldwide crisis, will supply their own associations.”