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At the Cornell, a word is worth a thousand pictures

Trey Speegle's 6-foot-tall partition screen in the atrium of the Cornell Museum of Art is about as old-fashioned as the 1950s-like paint-by-number paintings splashed across its panels. On 24 panels are quaint visions of farmland, collies, redwoods and deer lapping river water, over which appears the title of the piece in monolithic block lettering: "Never Look or You'll Never Leap."

"I see it as a call to action," Speegle says. "We all have that thought, 'Oh, I'll do that when blank happens, which is often an excuse to postpone whatever it is we want to do. I love using my collection as a visual vocabulary to express other ideas about art, love, life and loss."

The Brooklyn-based Speegle owns about 3,000 vintage paint-by-numbers, and about seven of them appear in the Cornell's group exhibition "Language Art," opening Tuesday, Dec. 2, in the Delray Beach museum. He inherited many of the pieces from a friend, Michael O'Donoghue, a former head writer at "Saturday Night Live," and his text-covered re-imaginings of paint-by-numbers have appeared in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and sit in the private collections of Stella McCartney and Jonathan Adler.

"I love the juxtaposition of word and image," says Speegle, who counts Ed Ruscha and Roy Lichtenstein as influences. "It gives the viewer a place to start and to engage with the work, which you might not do with words by itself."

Curator Melanie Johanson says she created "Language Art," which includes works by eight other artists from South Florida and beyond, to explore the emotional and social resonance found in the collision of text and art. Her interest in presenting a show about the power of typography was "kind of selfish," she admits. Johanson says she was drawn to text-based art while earning her bachelor's in graphic design at Tulane University in New Orleans. A "necessity" and major coup for the show, she says, was getting three pieces from famed pop-art painter Robert Indiana, one of which is a print of his iconic "HOPE," made during the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

"Robert Indiana is like reaching for the stars for me. I almost died from excitement," Johanson says of the three works on loan from the Rosenbaum Contemporary gallery in Boca Raton. "Everybody knows him for the his 'LOVE' sculpture in Philadelphia. It's the most reproduced text art of the 20th century. I wanted to make a show that's funkier than what the Cornell usually does, and typography is funky."

"Funky" best describes the nine-portrait series by Australian painter Johnny Romeo, who spray-paints stencils over paintings of pop characters, including Batman, Stormtroopers and a black-and-white Christopher Reeve as Superman, who tears open his shirt to reveal a bold "S." Johanson says Romeo often takes notes in journals while watching television and plucks out choice words and phrases to duplicate on canvas. Over a painting of a woman holding an assault rifle in "White Lines, he stenciled, "Faster Pussy Cat Kill Kill."

For Michael Dinges' "The Dead Laptops" series, the artist turns the hard plastic coating of nine Apple iBooks into a canvas, rubbing ink into engravings of bunnies and raccoons. The theme of technology likewise bleeds into Kathy Halper's embroideries, in which she re-creates Facebook status updates on linen. "I Like Eggs" contains a photograph of shirtless, laughing males at a fraternity party, with the "thumbs-up like" icon and the caption, "Dude someone changed all the contacts in my phone to 'I Like Eggs.'"

"I think she's making a statement about the permanence of artistic expression," Johanson says. "You can post anything on Facebook instantly, but embroidery takes time and patience and, in a way, feels almost more real to us."

Language Art

When: Tuesday, Dec. 2, through March 8 (reception 6-9 p.m. Tuesday)

Where: Cornell Museum of Art and American Culture, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach

Cost: $5

Contact: 561-243-7922 or DelrayCenterForTheArts.org

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