A code is a system of signs or symbols used for communication. Often the information is disguised or hidden in some way, allowing only those who know the code to decipher it. The artists in (de)coding convert images, texts, and ephemeral materials into contemporary artworks. Drawing from popular culture, they transform antique quilts and braided rugs, printed fabrics, casino playing cards, matchbook covers, newspapers, and other printed matter into new work that carries some of the original material or meaning encoded within it. In this way, they act as both decoders of cultural messages, as well as creators of new coded systems.
Each of the works in (de)coding acknowledges or responds to its original source in a particular way. Some artists appropriate and alter physical materials, adding or subtracting elements or deconstructing and repurposing recognizable fragments. Several redact or obscure information, while others translate text into visual language or even music. All of them break the codes embedded in their sources and use them to create unique new codes, building multiple layers of meaning into their work.
In linguistics, code-switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or dialects in a single conversation. In effect, all of the (de)coding artists are code-switchers, employing multiple visual languages simultaneously. The work they create remains in conversation with its source materials, even as the dialects differ.
Participating artists: Gina Adams, DARNstudio, Elizabeth Duffy, Ghost of a Dream, Shanti Grumbine, Kwesi Kwarteng, Debra Ramsay, Leslie Roberts, and Viviane Rombaldi-Seppey
DARNstudio (David Anthone + Ron Norsworthy)
CAKEwalk, 2020 Paper matchbooks, cotton thread, wool felt Courtesy of the artists
CAKEwalk is a large-format quilt from the ongoing series, Another Country, by the artist collaborative, DARNstudio. Like the 19th century quilts believed to be used by abolitionists as markers along the Underground Railroad, the quilts in this series are also symbolic signposts, conveying coded messages within their materials, patterns, and stitching.
DARNstudio’s quilts are made of custom matchbooks that depict logos of businesses or communities where unarmed people of color have lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement. Each matchbook bears an alpha-numeric code referencing the initials and death dates of a specific victim. Bound together by cotton thread sewn in connecting crosses, the overall effect is one of a net cast over the surface, perhaps creating a visual metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of chattel slavery.
The cakewalk quilt pattern takes its name from the exaggerated dancing that enslaved Black Americans performed, caricaturing the dress, gestures, and social customs of the planter class. Plantation owners served as judges for these contests and would award a cake to the winners, often unaware that they had been mocked in the process. Incorporating a
motif of colorful layered cakes rotating around an axis of concentric squares, the pattern acknowledges the structure of the original dance, with couples standing in square formations—men on the inside and women on the outside—as they moved around the room. Interested in how the term has evolved, the artists observe, “Contemporary usage of the term, particularly ‘it was a cakewalk’ and ‘takes the cake,’ has precluded, if not completely erased its original meaning, and most crucially neutered its initial inception as a clever retaliation against racial inequity from popular awareness.”
Treaty with the Cherokee 1791, 2016 Hand cut calico letters on antique quilt Courtesy of the artist and Accola Griefen Fine Art, Brooklyn, NY (Front on the left, back on the right)
Gina Adams considers herself a “contemporary hybrid artist,” whose ancestry strongly informs her multi-media work. As a descendant of both Indigenous (Ojibwe) and colonial Americans, Adams draws on cultural practices passed down from her ancestors as well as her family history of forced assimilation. In her “Broken Treaty Quilts,” she reproduces portions of treaties negotiated between Indigenous peoples and the United States government.
Using a font derived from 19th-century frontier newspapers, Adams cuts letters from calico fabric and sews them onto antique quilts. The overlap of calico text on top of existing quilt patterns sometimes obscures portions of the words and makes them difficult to read, perhaps alluding to the often confusing or unintelligible language of treaties. By omitting punctuation marks in the fragmented phrases, she further obscures the meaning and weight of the words.
Adams combines the appropriated broken treaty texts with vintage quilts that appear worn or broken, binding them together conceptually. She notes: “While it is difficult to know who made the original quilts used for this project, there is reason to believe they had been discarded due to their worn appearance. In my view, not unlike how Native people have been treated—as disposable. Sewing together injustice with an object of comfort stirs deep emotion. For I, as all people of Native American descent, have carried around a heart-wrenching history, a burden and a loss. Now I choose to weave that over-arching sadness into a source of tremendous comfort.”
Elizabeth Duffy Wearing: Tent, 2020 Unbraided, pressed and sewn worn braided rugs, rug remnants, tent structure, stones Courtesy of the artist
Elizabeth Duffy is a multidisciplinary artist who creates installations and objects that explore ideas about home—its comforts, contradictions, pathos, and humor. In her current project, “Wearing,” she unravels vintage braided rugs and uses the fabric to fashion clothing and domestic textiles. She explains: “These rugs, made from moth-eaten coats, worn blankets and clothing, reveal the tread of humanity going about their daily lives. I unbraid each rug, then press and sew the strips into cloth. The unbraiding reveals a myriad hidden patterns and exuberant hues. Lines of dotted holes indicate the years of tread marks eroding the fabric. Leopard-like spots of dirt pressed into the exposed parts of the rugs reveal human movement through time…The process of making these is something like an excavation, uncovering what the rugs hide in between the braids, while admiring the craft and labor of each anonymous maker.”
Duffy created Wearing: Tent in 2020 during an artist residency at Ucross Foundation in Clearmont, Wyoming. Hiking in the high plains, she observed the stone remains of tipi rings left by Indigenous people and was reminded of the circular braided rug she was using to make her current work. She was struck by the shared sense of home, place, and displacement that the rug and the tipi circles shared. After constructing a tent with fabric sourced from several rugs, she pitched it on a bluff, returning at dawn and dusk to record a video of the tent in the landscape. In true nomadic fashion, Duffy has re-installed it in this gallery using rocks as anchors, echoing the original tipi rings that inspired it. As with all of the “Wearing” works, she kept part of the original rugs attached, alluding to the cyclical nature of materials and the shifting boundaries of objects.
Ghost of a Dream Away from the darkest door, 2021 Used casino playing cards on 8 panels with UV coating Courtesy of the artists
Ghost of a Dream is the artistic collaboration of Adam Eckstrom and Lauren Was. Their sculptures and installations are made from the ephemera people create in the pursuit of their dreams of wealth, fame, true love, or even salvation. Mining popular culture, they search for discarded objects such as lottery tickets, trophies, casino playing cards, and romance novels, and use them to re-create people’s dreams.
Casino playing cards, like those that comprise Away from the darkest door, embody the idea of dreams slipping through one’s fingers—a concept important to Ghost of a Dream. Before the cards reach their studio, they have been touched by many other hands in casinos all across America. After a short stint at the gaming tables, they are quickly recycled to avoid being marked for cheating. The artists believe that at this stage the cards are imbued with the conflicting hopes of casinos and players—to take in money or to win it.
Used casino playing cards are bought in bulk and sent to prisons, where they are marked or cut at the corners to prevent their return to casinos. Once the newly marked cards are sorted into 52-card decks, they are distributed to gift shops around the world for tourists to buy. The cards are embedded with yet another layer of hope but also marked with the injustice of incarcerated individuals who earn pennies a day for manual labor.
“Once these cards end up in our studio, we use them to create collages with dazzling/dizzying patterns. We want the work to be exciting and alluring; we want it to get your endorphins flowing in the same way your mind feels a mild euphoria when given the chance to ‘win’ something. The pattern in Away from the darkest door uses multiple panels to create a circular swirling pattern, that in our mind speaks to how we are all connected in the circular spirals of hope and want.”
Shanti Grumbine Kenotic Score #1, Koran Burning, NATO Blunder, February 22, 2012 – March 6, 2012, 2013, Audio (2:00) Vocals: Shanti Grumbine and Julia Romero; Cello: Julia Romero; Mixed by Sahra Motalebi; Produced by Sahra Motalebi
(Images left to right) Study for Kenotic Score #1, 2013 Ink on graph paper
Installation view of work in (de)coding
Close up of Kenotic Score #1, Koran Burning, NATO Blunder, February 22, 2012 – March 6, 2012, 2013 16 screen prints with gouache on Thai mulberry (edition of 3)
Shanti Grumbine is a multi-media artist who uses paper cutting, drawing, printmaking, collage, sculpture and performance to transform everyday objects. As part on an ongoing project, Score, she created a screen-printed musical score derived from altered pages of The New York Times. During February and March of 2012, the artist followed a story of Koran burnings in Afghanistan as it moved through different sections of the newspaper. In First cut newspaper page for “Kenotic Score #1,” she excised the first image in a decorative manner, referencing commemorative paper cutting and illuminated musical notation. Removing the rest of the images and lines of text with an X-ACTO knife, she left only the rectangular headlines and pull quotes specific to the story, revealing what she calls “the underlying architecture of the narrative.” She followed the arc of this story, erasing and excising sixteen pages of The New York Times.
Grumbine used the cut newspaper pages as stencils for a screen-printed folio edition of the score. Printing a medieval clef and four-line staff over each page, she reinterpreted the remaining rectangular areas as musical square notes or neumes, with the tone of each note determined by its placement on this staff. Neume comes from the Greek word pneuma, meaning breath, spirit or soul. The artist explains, “Because the redacted page looked like a medieval score to me, I imposed onto it the written form of medieval plainchant/Gregorian chant. I translate the visual information into audio information as if the pull quote forms were a score of medieval neumes. The number of newspaper columns dictates a time signature. In reference to oral traditions of communication and prayer, I’m using melody as a preservation system for language. Each score can be read, performed and passed on as a chant. In this way, media content is translated into sound and breath.”
Kwesi Kwarteng Table of Friends, 2020 Fabric (batik, kaasa landaka, kente, maasi shuka, makana, sarape, wax print), raw canvas, thread Courtesy of the artist
Newark-based artist Kwesi Kwarteng uses a diversity of fabrics to explore ideas of multiculturalism, global interconnectivity and identity. Since emigrating from Ghana to the US in 2007, he has met people from many places with different cultural identities and backgrounds and his work celebrates these connections.
Kwarteng believes that fabrics, like languages, are important signifiers and carriers of culture, communicating unspoken messages to those who understand their embedded “language.” He is interested in the roles that fabrics play in the lives of those who use them. In Ghana, the colors and fabrics of clothing worn by individuals convey different milestones or emotional states—mourning, marriage, happiness, or tragedy—and this is true for other cultures as well. By utilizing a mix of fabrics from all over the world, Kwarteng encodes his work with multicultural symbols that are easily recognized by those within the specific cultures but also appreciated by the general public as beautiful design elements in their own right.
Table of Friends was inspired by a brunch the artist attended shortly after he arrived in the US. He was happy and energized by this opportunity to share a meal with new friends from diverse backgrounds and cultures—a benefit he continues to enjoy in this country. Incorporating fabrics collected mostly from friends and family, he has sewn them together like interlocking puzzle pieces. While the work resembles a map with various land masses, Kwarteng prefers to think that the borders between the fabrics bind them together instead of keeping them apart. Mining the cultural meanings of fabrics, he looks for the beauty in diversity, he finds its truest strength in unity.
Debra Ramsay Selections from the series, “A week in Times,” 2020 Acrylic and graphite on polyester Courtesy of the artist
(Left to right) A search team hunted for a missing resident on Friday in Ashland, ORE. At least 20 people have died in the fires, with peak season only beginning in many places. 9.13.2020
A new pier on Sunday in St Petersburg, Fla. The state has one of the nation’s worst outbreaks. 7.17.2020
Mourners laid flowers and notes on the steps of the Supreme Court on Friday night after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 9.20.2020
Joseph R. Biden, Jr. at a campaign event on Friday at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. President Trump at a rally on Friday at the Oakland County airport in Waterford Township, Mich. 10.31.2020 VOTE
Refrigerated trailers are being used as morgues by El Paso’s medical examiner’s office. 11.15.2020 Democracy at Risk
Debra Ramsay is a New York-based artist whose abstract work has primarily focused on the interaction of color and light. Her work moved in a new direction however, with a project she began in 2020. She explains, “In three decades of making artwork, this is my first reflection of current politics in my work. This series, “A week in Times,” is in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its mismanagement and the exposure of the deep-seated racism and longstanding inequality in our country, including the protests surrounding Black Lives Matter, were my motivation points.”
After listening to an interview with a photojournalist, Ramsay was struck by the idea that the desire for recognition and awards often determines the kinds of pictures photojournalists take—pictures that end up on the front page of The New York Times. Questioning if these images were slanted in some way, Ramsay decided to explore the idea in a series of new works that combine color painting and newsworthy events.
For each work in this series, Ramsay used a translucent support the same size as The New York Times and replicated a front page. After redacting all of the text and images, she replaced one photograph with a painted color field in the exact size and position on the page. Ramsay selected a color she observed in the sky at dawn or dusk on the day the story was printed. The photo’s original caption is handwritten in pencil along the bottom of the page, serving as a title for the work. By reducing a news story to one color and caption, Ramsay challenges us to reimagine its contents. In her own way, she is also “coloring” the news.
All works: Acrylic gouache, ink, graphite, colored pencil on gessoed panel Courtesy of the artist and Minus Space, Brooklyn, NY
Leslie Roberts translates words into visual language. She considers her paintings, which incorporate texts and abstract structures, to be “illuminated manuscripts of the everyday.” Working on gessoed panels resembling tablets or pages, she combines penciled and inked texts and notations with painted geometric configurations. Having devised this unique working method, she prints columns of letters and codes them into corresponding columns and rows of painted geometric forms. Roberts often creates more than one coded system for the same text, using different layers of colors, marks, and shapes.
Some of the texts document a journey or a particular place. For instance, GANSEVOORT ST documents a list of signs Roberts saw outside the Whitney Museum after visiting the Stuart Davis exhibition in 2016. Also written in this group of recent paintings are warnings from junk mail, text messages, contractual terms and conditions, common abbreviations, names of birds, and other language found in her environment. Roberts has noted that while it takes close looking to make out the words, the paintings can be viewed as formal compositions without being read. “I hope the works as a whole, with their regimented tangles of notation and paint, have a visual presence requiring no glossary.”
Along the Lines, 2016 Artist’s book Phonebook pages, ink, paper, cardboard All works courtesy of the artist
Viviane Rombaldi-Seppey is a Swiss-born artist who has lived in seven countries on four continents and this immersion in various cultures has nourished her creative process. Throughout her migratory experiences she has used art to make sense of her own place in the world: “My work is informed by my nomadism between countries, languages and ways of seeing or thinking…Part of my work is done with objects that physically and culturally reflect my own transplantation. Maps, phonebooks, books, photographs, collected objects are source materials used to describe the elusive meanings of places and my relation to them.”
The three works on view in this exhibition investigate the role of language in communication, encoding letters of the Roman alphabet into linear patterns that ultimately translate written language into sound. Each page in her concertina-style artist book, Along the Lines, displays a phone book page dedicated to one letter of the alphabet, with a drawn line connecting all occurrences of the designated letter. Pulsating replicates each of these 26 lines from the book and orders them from A to Z on a paper scroll. While they resemble text, these drawn patterns of lines and dots render the original text unreadable, regardless of the viewer’s native language. In Singing Letters, the artist collaborated with musician Benjamin Velez, to transcribe the lines into 26 paper scores, each referencing a different letter of the alphabet. Visitors are invited to choose a letter to play on a music box that is operated by a hand crank. The “singing” letters establish a nonverbal language of their own, inviting participants to consider the limits of language while expanding ideas of communication.