In an age bombarded by emails, Facebook and Twitter, communication explodes in a cascade of emojis, memes and codes.
“21st Century Cyphers” explores this phenomenon through the work of 15 artists at 516 ARTS. These artists use painting, sculpture, digital, installation and sound to dissect and reframe the nuances of language in the 21st century.
The dictionary defines “cypher” as a secret or disguised form of writing. In an age finding Facebook under fire for privacy violations, symbols and glyphs form their own kind of shorthand.
“I’ve been a student of language my entire adult life,” curator Claude Smith said. “The original idea is that artists are using visual code. In 2015, emoji was the word of the year from the Oxford English Dictionary.”
Arizona artist Matt Magee began exploring language at the Tamarind Institute in 2016.
Inspired by the grid paintings of New Mexico minimalist Agnes Martin, he created a print series based on her “On a Clear Day Screen Print Edition.”
“My first instinct was to fill them in,” he said of Martin’s trademark graph squares as he completed a mural at 516 ARTS. “These have evolved from a 4-by-6-inch print to a 72-inch-by-6-foot mural.”
The composition resembles a paragraph, complete with indentation. The body of the work looks like computer code imbedded within small oval shapes.
“It is a Morse kind of code,” he explained. “But it’s invented language.
“My work is language-based,” Magee continued. “My father was a geologist and a archaeologist. So the idea of looking up shapes and forms to understand what’s going on is natural to me.”
Karla Knight’s 2018 “Red Spaceship (UR, OM, UM, OX, UH),” resembles a futuristic Navajo rug emblazoned with hieroglyphics of eyes, shapes and letters. The artist is from Connecticut.
“She’s created imagery of invented language and glyphs that are both ancient and futuristic,” Smith said. “She calls these spaceship drawings. They strike me almost like looking at a motherboard.”
New York’s Hayal Pozanti, who also has printed at Tamarind, painted “81 (Percentage of CEOS with high intuition scores who doubled their business in five years),” 2016, acrylic on canvas.
“She created an imaginary alphabet called ‘Instant Paradise’,” Smith said. “She encrypts the paintings with information. She’s the only person who can read these; it’s almost like a time capsule.”
New Mexico’s Walter Robinson’s hybrid graphs-meet-crossword puzzles incorporate wordplay into their designs. “Tartan Wordcross (Cruel Truth),” 2011, stamps incongruous pairings such as “Fatal Botox” and “Toxic Pixel” into a plaid lifted from Scottish Highland design.
“He created these word labyrinths,” Smith said. “It’s arranged like a crossword puzzle and almost like a maze. You have to string together the words to find the way out.
“In times (of) trending topics like fake news and Facebook, they’re really complex,” he added. “They’re fun in that you can stand there and pull the words out.”