Decoding Kay Rosen’s Pithy Maxims on Isolation

At Sikkema Jenkins, New York, the artist’s latest bon-mot works tackle the anxieties and fears of the pandemic

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BY Paul Stephens in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 12 OCT 21

The first work on view in Kay Rosen’s timely show, ‘New Work 20202021’ at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., is Stay Away (2021), the phrase writ large upon the gallery wall in brilliant red italics. The work reminds us of the costs of social distancing – in the streets, the gallery and elsewhere. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term ‘social distancing; first emerged in sociology in the 1950s to describe ‘[t]he action or practice of maintaining a degree of remoteness or emotional separation from another person or social group’. Only in the early 2000s, during the SARS epidemic, did the term come to take on its present meaning of avoiding social interaction to prevent the spread of disease. ‘Social distancing’ came into widespread usage at the same moment as ‘lockdown’ and ‘self-isolate’. This sense of division and isolation has, of course, been magnified by political conditions in the US and abroad – conditions which Rosen has documented so well in her work of the past several decades, particularly those critical of the administrations of former US Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

Yes, Yes, 2021 Acrylic gouache on paper 17.5 x 28.25 inches 44.5 x 71.8 cm
Kay Rosen, Yes, Yes, 2021, acrylic gouache on paper,  44 × 72 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Stay Away and Queue Up (2020–21) are the largest – and, arguably, most significant – works in the show. Written in conjoined lower-case italics, the text of ‘queueup’ is perfectly symmetrical. In its repetition of the letters ‘eu’, the work may allude to one of the most famous one-word artworks (or poems), Aram Saroyan’s lighght (1965). For me, Queue Up again evoked the early, disorganized days of lockdown, where unmasked people lined up for COVID-19 tests at urgent-care facilities in New York.

The philosopher Vilém Flusser, in his book Does Writing Have a Future? (1987), states that ‘the shorter a text, the more difficult it is to decode’. Rosen’s works seem so simple as to not need decoding, yet sustained engagement reveals them to be replete with nuanced meanings. Consider, for instance, Yes, Yes (2021), the text of which reads, ‘Your Eyes Say Yes’. A direct quote from Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Beautiful Child’ (1979), sung by Stevie Nicks, this ambiguous phrase foreshadows issues of consent raised by the #MeToo movement.

Two Left Feet, 2020 Enamel paint on canvas 34.5 x 24 inches 87.6 x 61 cm
Kay Rosen, Two Left Feet, 2020, enamel paint on canvas, 88 × 61 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Not all the works in the show are equally powerful or inventive – the larger works tend to be more insightful – and the exhibition design seems to recognize this. In a few instances, such as the smaller-format Linkage (2021), which reads ‘Linkage = Link + Sausage’, the wordplay feels a bit too obvious. Perhaps this is a risk endemic to text-based art. Rosen’s words are eminently polished in their execution and, like much text art, bear a strong kinship to advertising copy. But these are also condensed poetic phrases, the best of which offer a real-time critique of the vacuity of public political discourse. It’s an approach that risks didacticism, and yet, thankfully, Rosen’s sense of humour averts this. As immediate as these works are, they invite us to contemplate and perhaps to misread or overread. When I first saw the ornate An Ex-Texan (2021) – Rosen was born in Corpus Christi – I mistakenly read ‘An Essex Man’ (coincidentally the title of a 2021 Michael Landy work that also alludes to an artist’s ambivalence about a region). A painting such as An Ex-Texan is a simple biographical statement, yet so much depends on context, typography, colour and, inherently, the social space of the gallery in which works such as these can once again be viewed freely.

Kay Rosen: New Work 20202021’ is on view at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, until 16 October.

Main image: Kay Rosen, 'New Work 20202021', 2021, exhibition view, Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Courtesy: the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Paul Stephens is the author of Absence of Clutter: Minimal Writing as Art and Literature (MIT, 2020) and The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing (Minnesota, 2015).

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