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Casting type to illustrate language

Kay Rosen’s “Key’’ from her exhibit “Black and White and Read All Over,’’ at Barbara Krakow Gallery. Kay Rosen’s “Key’’ from her exhibit “Black and White and Read All Over,’’ at Barbara Krakow Gallery.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / September 29, 2010

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What’s in a word? Kay Rosen, artist and linguist, sees more in words than the average reader. Her works at Barbara Krakow Gallery, mostly made with sign paint, are all text. Content is important, but Rosen’s works are not messages designed to prompt reflection on society and self, as are some pieces by contemporaries Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, who also work conceptually with text.

Rather, Rosen’s subject is language itself. The artist pops the top off words and peers inside, using typeface, size, space, and even letter order to turn them into something bigger and airier than a simple carrier of meaning.

Take “Pendulum,’’ which fills the largest wall in the gallery. Rosen spells it “PNUUMLDE.’’ To right the order of the letters, the reader’s eye must swing back and forth, first from end to end, and then within the word, reenacting the action of a pendulum. Rosen has made those outermost letters the tallest, so the shape of the word arcs, also mimicking the object it names.

“Key’’ begins with the word “SKELETON,’’ in bold black on white with a sans serif font. Rosen fills in the negative space between the first E and the L with gold, defining the shape of a skeleton key within that space. Letters are such powerful signifiers, it’s rare that we examine the shape of the space between them and find meaning there, as well.

Rosen’s works cleverly embody the meaning of the words they depict. The pieces are at first puzzling, and then funny, once you shake off the rigid meaning you bring to a word and discover Rosen’s fresh, physical angle on it.

Lost people
Caleb Cole is, despite his distinctive moon-faced countenance, a chameleon. He finds clothing, dons it, and creates a whole setting, character, and narrative, which he photographs. Then he returns the clothes to wherever they came from.

Cole’s show at Gallery Kayafas is at its best when he lets that face work for him. With it, he finds the soft center of his characters. Every one of them is alone and mournful. The photographs are comic, but filled with pathos. I was struck by the sheer humility in “Her Reflection,’’ in which he stands in a woman’s underwear and pantyhose, reflected in a mirror. He’s not trying to sell himself as a woman — the ample bra is clearly empty. Instead, the artist himself becomes an expression of his character’s inner sadness or shame, and the accouterments of clothing and place heighten the sense of not quite belonging, and at the same time, being entrenched.

Also at Gallery Kayafas, Rania Matar, best known for her photographs of ordi nary women in the Middle East, offers gorgeous and disturbing color photos of young women in their rooms. They range in age from 15 to 21, and many of their rooms are chaotic jumbles of pink and black, teddy bears, and makeup tables.

In these intimate settings, Matar captures the chasm between childhood and adulthood, and the young women straddling it. “Krystal, 17, Boston, MA. (#2),’’ lies on her bed, her neon-pink hair against pink pillows, surrounded by stuffed animals. She wears tattered black stockings and fuzzy pink boots. Is she a rebel? Is she sexy? Is she a little girl? The most painful thing about these images is that their subjects seem not to know any more than we do. In that way, they’re a lot like Cole’s images: lost people trying to anchor themselves in their belongings.

Lost creatures
Sculptor Charles Jones eloquently takes on the late-19th-century slaughter of the American bison in his show at Boston Sculptors Gallery. Millions of the animals were killed for their hides and left to rot. The Great Plains were scattered with carcasses. When settlers cleared the land, Jones said in an interview, people known as bone pickers gathered the skeletons, some of which were burned to make carbon black pigment.

Jones fills the walls of the gallery with large, stark, carbon black charcoal-drawn silhouettes of bones, and startling large-scale color photos of a bison skull. The centerpiece is his model for a monument, set on a train car. Nine blocks of amber resin sit side by side, with the light pouring through them; inside each are molds of bison skulls, dark and glowing. The piece is somber and sacred. Jones says he hopes to raise money to build a monument that can travel through the Great Plains by train, and ultimately sit amid the bison’s ghosts.

Marilu Swett’s drawing-like sculptures, also at Boston Sculptors, delightfully oscillate between emphasis on line and emphasis on space. They hang beside layered drawings on vellum and paper that inspired them. Swett uses dyed urethane rubber to create loopy layers of lines, as in “Under My Skin,’’ three webs of greenish rubber strung up against the wall. She wittily plays against expectations of light and shadow, making the deepest layer the palest and most translucent, and imbuing the piece with surprising spaciousness.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at cmcq@speakeasy.net.

KAY ROSEN: Black and White and Read All Over At: Barbara Krakow Gallery, 10 Newbury St., through Oct. 16. 617-262-4490, www.barbara krakowgallery.com

CALEB COLE: Other People’s Clothes RANIA MATAR: A Girl and Her Room At: Gallery Kayafas, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 16. 617-482-0411, www.gallerykayafas.com

CHARLES JONES: Bone Pickers: Concept for a Remote Monument MARILU SWETT: Casting Off: Drawings in 2- and 3-D At: Boston Sculptors Gallery, 486 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 3. 617-482-7781, www.bostonsculptors.com