(de)coding

Main Gallery
February 6–April 25

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

Cakewalk (detail) by DARNstudio

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.”

Gina Adams, Treaty with the Cherokee 1791
Gina Adams, Treaty with the Cherokee 1791

Gina Adams

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.”

Table of Friends by Kwesi Kwarteng

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.

In All Caps by Leslie Roberts

In All Caps

Warning by Leslie Roberts

Warning

Conditions

Leslie Roberts

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.”

Artwork by Viviane Rombaldi Seppey

Viviane Rombaldi-Seppey

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.

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