Mapping is everywhere in the arts these days and for good reason: maps organize information and illustrate relationships, and we have access to an extraordinary amount of information. Moreover, technological advances are shifting the way we see—and thus map—our universe. Probes send home pictures of newly discovered star clusters; satellites can zoom in on individual houses from space. Satellite photographs, like drawn maps, are now considered authoritative depictions of place but to map every bit of information about an area is impossible. Altitudes, terrains and latitudes may be inarguable, but what about other kinds of information attached to place? What about subjective associations, memories or the way we experience a place? Here, satellites and precise, color-coded diagrams are useless.
The project became so enormous and unmanageable it had to be abandoned. With landscape, there are facts one can attempt to replicate. However, one’s personal experience of landscape is quite different. No such parameters exist, even though experience is itself a mapping in our mind —a record of our interactions with the world.
Mental Maps, an exhibition of seven artists at Dorsky Gallery, is an elegant, fascinating group of works that consider the poetics, politics, codes and subjectivities of mapping. Curated by Kate Green, Assistant Curator at Artpace San Antonio, these compelling works—all made since 2003—investigate alternative kinds of mapping. Green was inspired by Guy Debord’s concept of “psychogeography,” a method of mapping that privileges subjective orientations of place, such as memory and attachment, over factual graphs.
Psychogeography plots the landscape we physically traverse while simultaneously charting our mutable, unpredictable mental states. Such complex layerings make for fascinating images. In the 1950s, Debord mapped Paris, depicting his personal thoughts and meanderings amongst its streets. The artists in Mental Maps also use the visual conventions of mapmaking—borders, arrows, graphs and symbols—to expose the intangible, sometimes invisible degrees of personal or social experience.
On the first wall, three meticulous pencil drawings by Augusto Di Stefano—sparse images isolated on white paper—Untitled, Corresponding and Untitled respectively. A delicate fence cuts across the first. A wall with a courtyard comprised of hundreds of tiny circles snakes across Corresponding; on the third drawing looms a sharp, modernist skyscraper. Each piece is sewn down the center in a long white stitch. These seams, which allude to the spine of a nonexistent book, are a further meditation on boundaries and borders. This series is a subtle but resonant entry point for the exhibition, presenting different ways we divide and organize space to form both obstructions and allegiances.
Adjacent is This Sour Desire, a striking, thirteen-foot-long work of delicately embroidered organdy by Jessica Rankin. Unframed and pinned to the wall, the sheer, off-white fabric layered with images and text undulates slightly. Pale yellow thread depicts constellations; bright orange outlines huge jellyfish. Green fir trees and golden ovals—perhaps protozoa—are interspersed with flowing currents. Text sewn in capital letters—blocky, un-spaced and sometimes illegible—also appears in deposits of sugary cursive. Rankin sews stream-of-consciousness passages like WORDSRUNOFFTHEPAGELIKEWATER and IDEASRUSHMEMORIESRUN—ruminations not unlike the poetic exhilarations of e. e. cummings.
Rankin’s text refers to constant motion: poison runs through; words disintegrate and are renewed. Language, like water, can flow or be diverted, become blocked or evaporate altogether. Attaching meaning to language can be precarious—subject to misinterpretations and slippage like a piece of ice you can grasp for only a moment. Like maps, words are signifiers, incapable of expressing the entirety of a physical or emotional experience. Rankin’s intertwining outlines of the celestial and organic, the grand and microscopic, diagram a small universe of fluid and fragmented connections.
Janice Caswell’s House of Borgia is a stunning minimal work comprised of a network of small nails pounded into the wall. Nails also run in wavering lines over several pale, collaged canvases, which float against the wall like continental plates on the oceans. As with many of the works in this exhibition, one is drawn in to marvel at astonishing detail. At certain points the nails congregate, piercing circles of brightly colored paper. The paper circles evoke population maps—the kind in which Mexico City might appear as a huge red circle, while mere specks dot Wyoming. The protruding metal teeth of the nails create borders that separate or map a meandering path from place to place—perhaps the artist’s own path. The Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser once remarked that he was more interested in the lines people create while traveling to a museum than in what was inside. Such lines—divergent, organic and unique—map the unpredictable channels we forge in everyday life.
Matthew Sontheimer’s Brief Flight Extensions, a series of austere ink and “white-out” correction fluid drawings, points to our habit of harnessing and charting facts as substitutes for other kinds of knowledge. Hundreds of non-sequential numbers are written in red ink, their small script precise and crowded. In nearly every number group, a digit has been scratched out, with the “correct” digit written above. Imperfection abounds, even in mathematics.
White-out zigzags tightly across blank squares, charting the vicissitudes of some mysterious data. In Green’s curatorial essay, we learn that Sontheimer created this code based on his father’s signature and an alphanumerical telephone keypad. These works were translated from entries in the artist’s journal during a period of intense therapy. Thus, the baffling tiny red numbers secretly refer to a narrative of concentrated emotion otherwise invisible to the eye. All we can see without the background story is the focused charting of information, revealing an obsessive desire to organize and thus gain some level of understanding.
Maps also serve the desire to control, aiding exploration, surveillance, colonization and, of course, war. In considering cartography as a practice, it is difficult to ignore the disastrous political results of arbitrary land-carving and territorial obsession, as well as how often an attachment to a particular wobbly outline galvanizes military action. In this exhibition, focused more on mapping as a conceptual practice, the most expressive allusion to the political uses of maps is in the work of Shaun O’Dell. His ink and gouache diptych The Hunters Burial at the Descent into Maelstrom and Westward The Corpse of Empire Takes Its Way links weaponry, galleon ships, skulls, Confederate profiles, bells, trees, geometric shapes and architectural traces in a composite of flowcharts and timelines. An atmosphere of high anxiety is created, albeit slightly relieved by cartoonlike graphics. Hunters, a black and white drawing, links myths of America’s founding to a disquieting timeline of the arms race. In Westward, text is absent. O’Dell adds primary colors in ballpoint pen, mapping a pictorial atmosphere of history, landscape and dread.
Considering the proliferation of artists working with mapping in recent years—from Mark Lombardi’s foreboding flowcharts to Laura Kurgan’s enlarged and abstracted satellite photographs—it is impressive that Mental Maps retains a sense of intimacy and cohesion despite the baffling abundance of places, times and experiences we all chart in each day that passes.