Andrea Oleniczak and Taylor Kurrle examine the language of equality, unity, and separation in show of neon works at Gallery 1308.
You don't have to visit Union South's Gallery 1308 during gallery hours to get a glimpse of its newest exhibition. The colorful words and patterns rendered in bright neon glass shine out to the cars and pedestrians traveling on Campus Drive.
The show running there through September 21, All Of Us And The Lights, is a collection of new neon works from Andrea Oleniczak and Taylor Kurrle, two Masters of Fine Arts candidates at UW-Madison. The pieces are the product of a summer the duo has spent bending neon, learning how to program, and examining language use. Kurrle and Oleniczak turn pronouns and the language of identification into brightly lit poems and patterns, giving the viewer a visual invitation to reflect on the way we use language to relate to others.
After entering graduate school last year, Oleniczak and Kurrle found themselves talking a lot about what "equality" meant to them in a new context. The two, who have been partners for twelve years, previously worked professionally in the glass craft community, and found re-entering academia to be a bit of a culture change. "Everyone is talking about equality, but it’s almost like no one is practicing it," Oleniczak says of the campus environment. "And we had the luxury of coming from a craft background, where no one was talking about it, but everyone was practicing it."
The two acknowledge their privilege in talking about such a topic with any degree of specificity. That's why they wanted to take a step back and look at the big picture of how pronouns function in language. As the two write in their artist statement, "possessive pronouns, mine, yours, hers, his, ours, and theirs, create the concept of separation and ownership. Through the rearrangement of words and symbols as visual elements, we aim to create a cohesive image of unity using language as separation."
The conversation was first sparked by one of Kurrle's pieces, which vertically reflects the word "everyone" across a vertical mirror. Blue letters are interspersed with white ones, which double as mathematical operators: flipped on their sides, Vs and Ys become greater-than and less-than signs; Ns similarly flipped hint at an equal (or not equal to?) sign.
The intersection of neon and language itself is nothing new, since neon as signage comes so naturally from language explorations. (Helen Lee, head of the Glass Department at UW-Madison, also explores the way language functions and the way that glass can intercede in the process.)
A couple pieces give this intersection a new twist as Oleniczak draws on her programming knowledge and Kurrle draws on his propensity for visual patterns.
Oleniczak's wall-sized work of shocking neon white shines on the viewer at one entrance to the gallery. The piece, "include && them," plays with pronoun usage as filtered through machinery. The text of the piece was originally created as an entire computer program, written in code for the interactive electronics device Arduino. Now, with the truly technical jargon deleted, it reads as a sort of simplified programming poem, commanding our brains to execute a process: combine the concepts of "us" and "them;" then spit out the word: "everybody." Two ampersands (&&) signify in code, essentially, that if one part is missing, then the whole program is void—a concept Oleniczak says she "found really beautiful" when learning how to program this summer.
Kurrle plays more with visual patterns than with text. His lush red and yellow "Circle Of Us" seems to warp and vibrate the more you gaze at it, and the particularly curvy letters of U and S add a lot of ornamentation. Other patterns become apparent too—Kurrle tells me one instructor remarked that he was able to see the word "Jesus" in the piece. Or you can find another word that's already there: this particular piece breaks down language barriers, also reading as the pronoun "su," which means "his" in Spanish.
There's even an element of play and movement in the only non-pulsating work of the show, "Everyone Loves A Choice," which consists of two circles of vinyl lettering that read "me, you, them." Oleniczak recounts a time she walked in on a young girl spinning around, tracing the circles, perhaps playing with the light bouncing of the reflection.
A glowing, lowercase blue "i" is the only singular pronoun in the show. What does it say that it's located by the exit? I can't say, but Kurrle and Oleniczak tell me that its off-center positioning, and location at knee-height, was extremely intentional.
The show's only been up for a week or so, and two artists have already received some exuberant feedback. There's the facilities manager who commented that he watched the duo install and has been "jammin' on the message." And a comment in the guestbook reads that the show "speaks to me every day on my way into work at 6:00am; i'm glad i got to see it in person instead of just through the window. Thank you <3." Oleniczak is really touched by this last comment—she's never written in exhibition guestbooks herself, but after this message, she plans to start.
All Of Us And the Lights is on view at Gallery 1308 at Union South through September 21. The gallery itself is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and you can catch the exhibition anytime through the window.
Disclosure: Chali Pittman previously took classes in the UW-Madison Glass Department, although Kurrle and Oleniczak were not students in the department at the time.