Rules of Conversion explores language at Haskins Laboratories

David A. Brensilver

Last fall, the Arts Council of Greater New Haven presented an exhibition called Mind Sets, in which artists collaborated with scientists from Haskins Laboratories, a nonprofit research facility dedicated to the study of reading and speech.

Philip Rubin, senior scientist and CEO at Haskins Laboratories, recently said the fascinating thing about the Mind Sets exhibition was that the scientists’ “work had to be contextualized.”

Talking about the importance of context, Rubin pointed to Sensation, a 1997 exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts that later traveled to the Brooklyn Museum. In New York, Marcus Harvey’s painting Myra – a portrait of child-killer Myra Hindley that incorporated a child’s handprint – went largely ignored, Rubin said. And while “nobody was paying any attention to it” in Brooklyn, visitors to London’s Royal Academy of Arts “weren’t amused.”

This month, the Arts Council will present Rules of Conversion, an exhibition at Haskins Laboratories in which artists Amaranth Borsuk, Qian Lin, Karen Shaw, Jeanne Criscola, and Laurie Frick will explore encoded and embedded language. The exhibition is being curated by Debbie Hesse, the Arts Council’s director of artistic programs and services, and Hartford-based artist Carol Padberg, whose work was featured in Mind Sets.

Laurie Frick

Increasingly, Hesse said, artists are finding ways to manipulate, find meaning in, and utilize the structures of language as they conceptualize and create new work.

The work of New Haven-based graphic designer Criscola, for example, springs from elements of graphic design (her vocation) – coding, symbols, reductions, and abbreviations, among others. Her interest is in examining how we experience those elements. In her work, Criscola said she uses “a lot of iconography to explore other ideas.”

“Most of the work that I do,” she said, “is time-based … basically an animated documentary.”

For Rules of Conversion, Criscola is working on a piece called Tic-Tac-Toe, an eight-minute loop of animation, without sound, that will be projected onto a 60”x60” surface. The work, Criscola said, uses symbolism from virtual environments that carries suggestions of aggression, war, and the outcomes of conflict. “Through the idea of a simple game – Tic-Tac-Toe – and the process of elimination and the embedded meaning of this particular game,” Criscola said she is creating “a narrative.”

New York audiences hardly noticed Harvey’s Myra because, for them, there was no context. They had no idea who Myra Hindley was.

In Rules of Conversion, each individual piece will provide context, with Haskins Laboratories providing a larger context for the collection as a whole.

Borsuk’s “digital pop-up book” Between Page and Screen utilizes physical and virtual elements, while Lin’s paintings use imagery to convey the meanings found in incorporated Chinese characters and Criscola’s work looks into the meanings that are and can be conveyed by symbols and images.

“In a process I call summantics,” Shaw writes on her website, “I designate a numerical equivalent to each letter of the alphabet according to its position,” thus creating a new vocabulary, while Frick “draws from neuroscience to construct intricately hand-built works and installations to explore the nature of pattern and the mind.”

Where Haskins Laboratories studies the mechanisms that allow ideas and information to be shared, Rules of Conversion examines the myriad methods of delivery.

Rules of Conversion will be on view September 22 through January 25, 2012, at Haskins Laboratories, 300 George St., 9th floor, New Haven. For details, call the Arts Council at (203) 772-2788 or visit


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