One Woman Turned Awful Breakup Texts Into Art

“I obviously date the wrong people,” Allison Wade said, laughing. The artist behind the Break-up Text paintings, which have been collected in “It’s Not You,” an exhibit at Rick Wester Fine Art through January 10, Wade paints the messages she’s sent and received at the end of various relationships. They’re alternately desperate (“WTF!!! YOU LEFT FOR IBIZA WITHOUT ME”) and devastatingly apathetic (“Sorry I have been out of touch this week. There was a snowstorm and I have been watching movies”).

Wade’s work has long focused on relationships and modern communication. She’s used found voicemails, is at work on a series about sexts, and is hoping to track down the servers that contain messages from blocked numbers. “You don’t know that you’ve been blocked, but the messages never make it to the intended recipient. I really want to know more about the content of these messages.” Wade lives and works in New York City, which she calls “the hardest place to date in the world.”

She spoke to the Cut about the vulnerability of using breakups as source material, where intimacy meets isolation, and why she invited all her exes to the opening.

Photo: Allison Wade

How did this project start?
About two and half years ago, I got a very bizarre text from a guy I was dating. He said, “I’ll contact you after the burial” and then I never heard from him again. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I began to comb through my phone, culling other breakup texts.

Photo: Allison Wade

There’s a certain seductiveness to text-based work, as if by being able to read it you can understand what the piece is about. What do you hope to do by painting these messages on canvas?
I’m interested in the distance enforced by technology. The paintings are funny, but they’re also confrontational — the messages are bigger, they’re in bright colors, and the viewer interacts with a disposable medium in a more permanent form. It’s incredibly isolating to be broken up with via text; by bringing these messages to a physical space I hope that people will realize they’re not alone.

When I’m in the gallery, people start showing me their own breakup texts. Almost everyone can relate to taking that way out. I was definitely guilty of it in graduate school. I was going through a divorce (this was pre-texting) and I found myself wanting to get my husband’s answering machine instead of actually having to talk to him.

At that point, I began to collect old voicemail machines. When people transitioned to digital voicemails, they’d unplug their machines, which might sit on a shelf for a few years before being donated to Goodwill. Some machines have like 20 messages still on them. I’ll install a pile of these yellowish answering machines in a space and have various voicemail clips playing.

Photo: Allison Wade

What kind of messages would you hear?
There’s a lot of mundane stuff, but also the kind of one-sided communication I’ve been exploring with the Break-up Text paintings. There was this one guy named Peter, and his girlfriend left a message to say she was heading to the hospital. She called again to tell him the results of the EKG. The messages continue, and it moves from a desperate “Where are you?” to a more resigned “I’m sorry this didn’t work out.” He must have just up and left because there were a number of calls from other people asking what was going on or begging him to call them back.

With machines that have over 20 messages, you can really start to create an image of the person, even though you don’t hear anything from their perspective. But it’s so intimate. On another machine I heard a message from a girl who called her ex-boyfriend to let him know that her mother had died. She said her mom had always liked him and was sorry their relationship hadn’t worked out. It ended with her going, “Anyway, Merry Christmas.” I was like, Why would you leave a message about someone dying? I’m always surprised by the distances between people.

Photo: Allison Wade

Have you heard anything back from the exes featured in the Break-up Text paintings?
No, I haven’t, but I invited them all to the show.

That sounds like a nightmare.
[Laughs.] Yeah, when I think about it, it really does sound awful to be in a room with all of them. A part of inviting them was about revenge. I’ve had my heart broken and there’s a certain gratification I get from showing them what I’ve done with their messages. None of them came, obviously.

Photo: Allison Wade

Do you ever feel vulnerable working with the messages? 
Definitely. By using it as source material, I’ve been worried that exes will feel like I’m not “over it,” which can be embarrassing. When these breakups are happening I’m usually pretty crushed. It takes me a while to paint a text that I’ve received that was heartbreaking. I have to get to a point where I’m comfortable going back to that emotionally charged time and pulling from it. But I do feel like it gives me a bit of closure that I didn’t really get by being dumped via text.

Photo: Allison Wade

A lot of the texts in the show are very bizarre, but in seeing so many people’s breakup texts, are there certain tropes you’ve begun to recognize?
You know you’re getting dumped if a text starts with “I think you’re a great person.” Or, if it your boyfriend/girlfriend texts “Listen,” you know you’re in trouble. That’s a serious red flag.

How does the series impact your own dating life?
When I go on a date I have to say, “I do breakup-text-message paintings, FYI.” Once I went on a blind date, and I told him about the series, and he was like, “Well, I’ve haven’t sent you any texts.” I never heard from him again. One guy was like, “I’m never texting you.” Down the road, he did start texting me. I want to find love, so I’m hoping I’ll run out of breakup texts soon.

Photo: Allison Wade

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

One Woman Turned Awful Breakup Texts Into Art