Janice Caswell

Mapping Unseen Territory

Funny how the word globalization hasn’t been used much during the last year and a half. Not since Afghanistan became known as a maze of caves and underground passageways, and television images of Iran confounded rather than reassured us, have these places seemed so far away. The world isn’t so small anymore.The earth seems full of strange, dark and remote places that may or may not appear on a map.
Yet these days we continually consult maps to find our location in relation to the rest of the world, to picture a safe haven, to imagine the paths taken by soldiers or supply convoys, or to conceptualize, with the help of sweeping arrows drawn by retired generals, a clean victory of good over evil. As maps align us with something bigger than ourselves, they are somewhat spiritual in nature, as currently exhibiting artists at the Marsh Art Gallery and the Hand Workshop demonstrate. Painter Arnold Mesches counts on maps and disparate images to track personal and collective memories of the last century at the Marsh Art Gallery, while artists Janice Caswell and Lordy Rodriguez chart idealized and imagined landscapes at the Hand Workshop Art Center.

A second generation American Jew, Mesches expresses his acute sensitivity to his family’s history as it paralleled world events. This sensitivity is manifested in expressive, painterly form. Mesches threads family and world events with what he calls “Jewish morality” — a legacy that requires social activism and responsibility. The roads, paths, rivers and mountain ranges in Mesches’ maps not only work to locate events but seem to represent in graphic form cultural wounds the artist feels he must shoulder. For Mesches, the act of painting these events appears to be a means of fully digesting them, and by pairing maps with bits and pieces of popular culture, he can represent conflict as engrained not only in our political, but also our social history.

While our preoccupation with military maps recently broadcast and printed by the media may be temporary, Mesches’ obsession with maps, particularly those that chart military movement in 20th-century Europe, has been present his entire working life. Viewers may be shocked by how relevant these paintings (mostly completed during the past 10 years) are to America’s situation this moment. At the Hand Workshop, Texan Lordy Rodriguez’s images mimic digital maps that city and regional planning departments might generate. Rodriguez builds these places with brilliant color and familiar graphic conventions such as dense grids suggesting population locations and organic shapes hinting at the natural environments. With no identifying labels or key, Rodriguez’s places could read as ideal regions where traffic jams, urban sprawl and endangered ecosystems are nonexistent.

In “Gulf Towns with Ferry Lines,” Rodriguez conjures a seemingly benign coastline connected to a nearby island with several dashed lines. How abstract is this image of greens (land) and blues (water), yet at the same time how descriptive of places we know or can imagine. Anyone who cares to study maps for more than practical information will be drawn to this Gulf town, perhaps envisioning scenic roadways, picturesque beaches and the view of an island as a ferry approaches. Rodriguez’s exploitation of cartographic visual language produces believable documents with a scientific face, but more than any official document, these rich conceits overflow with ideological possibility.

New York artist Janice Caswell’s installation “Greener Pastures” further abstracts the map form, omitting symbols of physical landscape features while still plotting “locations” designated by small colored circles on straight pins. Loosely tied together with a thin ink line that wanders around the pins, “Green Pastures” may map an imagined place where one’s mind rather than feet is led about a circuitous route. “Greener Pastures,” visually engaging and conceptually poetic, is the place to escape to in spirit if not in body.

Adding and subtracting information as necessary, Mesches, Rodriguez and Caswell each pioneers territory that is seen and unseen, and each cleverly invents new forms of navigation.

Janice Caswell and Lordy Rodriguez’s “Mapping Memory” is on display at the Hand Workshop Art Center, 1812 W. Main St., through May 18. Arnold Mesches’ “Echoes, a Century Survey” is showing at the Marsh Art Gallery at the University of Richmond through June 28.