The Rebus Names Project

Shotgun Review

The Rebus Names Project

By Kara Q. Smith September 25, 2014

In the Middle Ages, rebuses were used to represent family names. The use of images in place of words has proved useful ever since then—as a visual tool to advance literacy, or simply to create challenging word puzzles. Tim Roseborough has adapted the rebus for The Rebus Names Project, currently on view and unfolding at A Simple Collective. For the project, Roseborough creates flashcard-like images combining familiar objects, letters, and mathematical symbols that represent the first and last names of his Facebook friends as well as visitors who sign up in the gallery to participate. These visual puzzles are then gifted to their respective subjects to use as they wish and presented on the website rebusnames.com. A selection of rebuses were also printed and displayed for the gallery exhibition.

Tim Roseborough. Paul Aferiat from The Rebus Names Project, 2014; digital print on photographic paper; edition of 3; 20 x 16 in. Courtesy of the Artist and A Simple Collective, San Francisco.

As a viewer, solving these puzzles relies heavily on the associations one draws from their individual elements. Roseborough chose clip-art-like digital illustrations for objects, rendered with a slick, cartoon-like or stock-image finish; it’s up to the viewer to innately reduce the objects to their essence. For example, in Paul Aferiat (2014), one must think “hat,” as opposed to “bowler,” or “homburg,” in order to correctly solve the equation. The same objects often occur across multiple pieces but have a different meaning each time. This repetition reduces emphasis on the thing itself (read: hat, etc.) and shifts the focus to what the overall puzzle represents phonetically.

Generally, this “what” is a “who”: a person Roseborough is digitally connected to. Thus, the rebuses also function as portraits. It’s not coincidental then that once gifted from Roseborough, the rebuses often become their subjects’ Facebook profile pictures—that quintessential pixelated representation of the self. Both playful and symbolic, The Rebus Names Project is rife with complexities and pleasantries about our online relationships and the exchange between artist and public. In creating a new system for personal identification by tweaking an older form of visual representation, Roseborough adds a new chapter to contemporary portraiture. 

The Rebus Names Project is on view at A Simple Collective, in

San Francisco

, through October 11, 2014.

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