Maps are gorgeous but notable artists are rarely invited to render them. They wouldn’t make sense in a language of pure subjectivity…or would they? In fact, we invest boundless excitement in maps, marvel over their tiniest details, anticipating the exotic promise of foreign places. This projection qualifies maps as conceptual rather than purely representational, opening a door for subjective interpretations of place.
For City Maps at ArtPace, curator Kate Green chose four artists who strike a nice balance like the four corners of the world or the four cardinal directions. No one particular place is mentioned in the exhibition–no worship of New York, for example. Rather, the exhibit puts forth the idea of space as abstract and personal.
Two works by Erik Benson are familiar thanks to his recent Finesilver exhibition. While these were stunners the first time around–his layered process is intricate and amazing–they become less so upon second viewing. Benson builds up forms in an architectural fashion. He dries paint on a smooth surface and then cuts off thin ribbons of color that he uses to reconstruct urban settings on canvas. This process forms a visual echo as Benson’s subjects recede behind one another, creating the illusion of distance. In Quiet Summer (Wild Rails), an undulating, latticed roller coaster answers gently sloping mounds of dirt in the foreground–a nice contrast with a skyscraper’s hard edges in the distance.
However, Benson’s palette in this particular work leaves something to be desired–after all, beige on beige is still beige. His untitled piece is more exciting. Glinting blue, orange and green windows reflect a painterly sky; this dance of color counteracts the staid grid of the depicted building. Benson’s work is representational and his process is at least as important as his desolate, architectural subjects. In any discussion of urban space, he certainly belongs.
Ruth Root’s playful, abstract paintings use industrial materials–metal sheets covered in thick enamel blocks of black, browns and reddish purples and pinks. Their dimensions recall the peculiar uniformity of Southwestern states’ squared borders. In maps of this particular region, interior lines are straight and grid-like while the actual U.S. border is an arbitrarily drawn mess. Root’s paintings mimic this incongruity. They are expansive, growing out of standard rectangular formats and morphing into amorphous shapes.
Mondrian is alive and well in this work; in fact, he is everywhere in this exhibition because he looked through a grid and saw a beautiful, infinite expanse. And like Root, Mondrian was not afraid of technical imperfections. Both artists apply paint in a very human way, replete with bumps and streaks that add a living, breathing quality to their work.
All of the artists in this exhibition compose their work in layers, but San Antonio-based Alex Lopez fuses his material the most seamlessly of all. His Title Pending/Little Deaths is a series of five aluminum panels with pinstriped applique–abstractions that resemble aerial views of streets, highways and city lights. Lopez’ use of metal, hovering inches from the wall, adds to the notion of flight. Small clusters of abstract shapes beg for a key to decode them. They also seem very intentionally selected, as if honed in on–a specificity that gives these imaginary sites some meaning. The effect is reminiscent of viewing a city from a landing plane, when passengers begin to look for familiar things–pools of water, their neighborhoods, certain landmarks. Lopez provides just such an interesting, brief illusion. As abstractions, these five works are stunning and coalesce into a unified piece.
The pendulum of City Maps swings from cool abstraction to warm playfulness again in Janice Caswell’s intimate works on paper. In The Glass Palace, Caswell reminds us of the nature of subjectivity. Unconstrained lines drawn in marker travel back and forth across the page creating airy, curving forms with no specific mass. Calm blues offset bold oranges; red works against green recalling the interwoven lines of subway maps. Caswell’s markings pause as they stroll along, conveying the slightly awkward sense that they have no intended direction. Dots of various sizes are affixed to these lines like the symbol for towns and cities on a common road map. Going along with Green’s original idea that maps are personal, Caswell’s works seem to chart a highly individuated mode of locomotion. These energetic works are happy trails, like the graphic representation of a holiday spent in aimless meandering and filled with chance encounters.
City Maps is both austere and very personal. In a city where people seem to define themselves by how seldom they cross Highway 410–or by living on the “Eastside” or “Westside”–it is a show with resonance.
Catherine Walworth holds degrees in art and art history from Cornell College and the University of Washington. She currently works at the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum in San Antonio.