I’ve never really been a fan of the lovey-dovey hearts-and-flowers aspects of Valentine’s Day. Which is probably why, despite there being many more seemingly appropriate works to celebrate today in the museum’s collection, on this particular day I’m choosing to highlight Kay Rosen’s spare black-and-white painting 4-1/2 Oxen.
It takes a moment (or maybe more than a moment) to “get” Rosen’s paintings. In this case, 4-1/2 Oxen refers to the word “ox” (as in the animal) written precisely 4.5 times—four and a half oxen. But one of Rosen’s primary interests is how we deconstruct and reconstruct language, so she might have guessed that one of the first ways that viewers might “read” this painting would be to latch on to the XOXO, a series of letters that commonly signifies love.
Rosen holds a Master’s degree in Linguistics from Northwestern University and her preoccupation with language runs deep in her work, which often contains synonyms, homonyms (as in the museum’s Sic [Sic] Sick), and wordplay (as in the museum’s Two Eiffels, among others). Such attention leads the viewer to acknowledge how they’re interpreting and connecting letters and words. For example, in Torsos Rot (one of the least romantic titles possible), did you read it as “TOR” “SOS” “ROT” or as the title of the work, “TORSOS ROT”? Did you read it as a palindrome? And how does your reading/viewing of the work change because of how the letters are written: three letters on three lines? It’s an overwhelming amount of information presented in seemingly simple terms.
So, Happy Valentine’s Day? At the very least, I hope you all have a little “XOXO” in your life.