Most of Kate McQuillen’s 13 watercolors, wall installations, and silk screens at Caro d’Offay are “translations” of e-mails, letters, and voice mails she’s received. McQuillen used a different method for each translation and reveals neither the encoding system nor the original message, creating a sense of hidden meaning that causes the viewer to reflect on the mysteries of language. The watercolors’ pale, sensuous colors and elegant geometrical designs are especially appealing.

McQuillen’s dad is a painter, and she made cartoons and comics about her family as a child. She began college at NYU as an English major in 1996 but transferred after a year to the Massachusetts College of Art. There she was struck by how an e-mail has no physical form; she contrasted “all these e-mails sitting on some server” to her boyfriend’s letters, which she’d saved in a shoe box. Reading about computers, she was fascinated by the ways they translate data into bits and by their dependence on “language,” or stored commands. She began making drawings and prints that were kind of technical looking, she says: “There was imagery of lots of little particles.” She made her first translation piece in 2001, charting the letters of the alphabet in an e-mail on a rising and falling line. During a school trip to China a month later, she found she loved the different styles of calligraphy at the Shanghai Museum. “They took words and gave them a physical form, but the mark making was so careful, so expressive, and the calligraphy had wonderful rhythms. It reminded me of an Egyptian exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston I saw as a kid. They re-created a tomb, so you were surrounded on all four sides by stone walls covered with hieroglyphics. These words that someone wrote 4,000 years ago were still conveying an idea. I realized a word’s physical form could be as meaningful as its dictionary definition.” She also admired the premodern art of China because it has “nothing to do with who the artist is as a person. They just want it to be a good painting–it’s often a copy of an old master.”

McQuillen started making translation pieces on a computer but found they looked too mechanical. “I wasn’t that happy with the flat surfaces, and I wanted something that reflected my hand. I figured that this isn’t just data, someone wrote these letters to me, so it’s appropriate to leave myself in. But at first I didn’t know how to make them more expressive, so I did some other things, including some very bad paintings.” After moving to Chicago and finding studio space she set her computer aside. For the wall-size Flower Letter she cut silk-screened paper into different size squares of different colors, one type for each letter, and pinned the sheets to the wall to make words. The source was a handwritten letter from the shoe box, sent when her boyfriend was overseas, which gave the work a personal, emotional quality. For other pieces she punched holes in sheets of paper to represent letters, and she made watercolor drawings in which colored shapes, each symbolizing a different letter, were layered within squares to represent words. Pot o’ Guinness translates a Saint Patrick’s Day e-mail (whose subject line provided the title) into a mysteriously symmetrical forest of triangles and hexagons in pale primary colors. For the watercolor Dad’s Voicemail she used a different color for each letter, creating a grid of squares and triangles whose shaky lines echo her father’s drawing style.

“There’s already so much contemporary art that’s all about individualism,” McQuillen says. “My work is about things that I’ve experienced, but it doesn’t feel like a big outpouring of emotion. I’m trying to present a really large idea that’s present in everyone’s lives–language. If you only deal with the raw emotional side you’re leaving out a major aspect of our language, because it’s a system of 26 letters and 10 digits. In nature most things happen for a reason. A totally beautiful flower is certain colors to attract certain insects. I’d like my work to be something that you love to look at, but that also lets you know it’s that way for a reason.”

Kate McQuillen: Letters

When: Through Mon 12/19

Where: Caro d’Offay, 2204 W. North

Info: 773-235-7400

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Fred Camper.