New York

Karen Shaw

Bertha Urdang Gallery

In some languages, letters and numbers are housed in the same alphabet, offering the possibility of interchanging their functions. Gematria, the Hebrew science of cryptography, holds that the hidden meaning of a word is released through assigning significance to its numerical value. Karen Shaw uses numbers and letters as her medium, assembling, dismantling, assigning value to the valueless and unquantifiable; words, numbers, from poems, ticket stubs, supermarket receipts, become content of her art. Using the reflexive relationship between letters and numbers, Shaw constructs equations composed of the forbidden mixture of apples and oranges, always flirting with the meaningless, yet somehow, almost alchemically, surfacing with the witty, the poetic, the true.

The work is divided into three series. The first consists of a block of words extracted from a coatroom check, a stamp, a price-tag, records of impersonal transactions, and, accordingly, is executed on ledger paper. The sum of the letters in each word corresponds to the particular stub/ticket/tag number pasted above it. Words are linked and wonderful phrases emerge “Die high sun cloaked by reddish sunset”; “Can life remain viable thru trust.”

Another dimension is added to the reading, namely the involvement with items usually discarded, which were here carefully collected and stored for their ultimate exaltation in a work of art. They are records of transactions of a mass nature—the mails, waiting in line at the bakery, retrieving an umbrella from from the checkroom in a restaurant—markers of where the artist has been, of where we all have been. When we deal with words and numbers we are dealing with a system of signs which limit us to one language, to one universe. Karen Shaw has everyone talking, locating us in the realm of communication impulses, showcasing and retrieving meaning from that commonality as if from some ancient source of knowledge and mystery.

Abridged Summantic Vocabulary Collection 1-138 is a large bound ledger containing hundreds of word entries equivalent to a given number. The words, as delicious as anything anyone would yearn to collect, are pure confections in their peculiar humdrum eclecticism: elescrito, gila monster, wastepaper, township. This is a lexicon of randomness, a very personal dictionary, useless, unredeemable, yet eminently logical and beautiful.

The problem in the work that arises is the issue of handwriting and the use of various writing tools. The different register of blacks made by different brands of ink and felt-tip markers is mildly disturbing. The alternation of print and script through all the pieces is an area of tension that needs clearing up, though not necessarily by greater consistency or uniformity.

The next piece is the second installment on a theme entitled Reckoning ± Rilke: Investigations into the Inequality of Translation. Taking a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke in its original 19th-century German and summarizing it by adding all its letters, Shaws compares the poem, as embodied in that final numeral, with various translations, also summarized into a single figure. What is “gained” and what is “lost” in translation is noted. The last panel of this piece has Shaw’s poetic “reckoning,” her settling of accounts which follows the exact numerical construction and sum of the original poem. Dealing with the task of translating a lyrical poem as Wittgenstein suggests—as a “mathematical problem,” Karen Shaw composes what is the most exceptional translation of all.

The visual, usually circumscribed into a separate realm, is aligned with words and numbers in her latest series. Shaw puts a smiling portrait by Hogarth next to Andy Warhol’s Liz Taylor, one on either side of an equal sign, justifying the equation by the numerical equivalency of the artists’ names and arriving at its conceptual common denominator, the word “smile.” Paint and paper figure more prominently in this series: in a piece with a diagonal fold running through it, plica=scar=linea; two rectangles—one black, one white—inspire the simple statement: negra=45=blanche.

Lining the bottom of all the works are words pencil-written in a small but relaxed script. Their relationship to the body of the particular piece is mystifying and tangential, a sort of conceptual and visual gravel underlying a foundation which is equally tentative and subjective.

But aside from simply forming a continuous ribbon tying the pieces together, it functions as the key of Karen Shaw’s exercise: in opposition and collusion with the legend repeated on top of all the pieces, a=1, b=2, c=3, it expresses the simultaneity of processes in logic and in mystery.

Judith Lopes Cardozo