Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Mapping the Maps at the de Young Museum

Tuesday was free day at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, and because I had an assignment from the book arts educators reading group to go see the Mapping the Contemporary Print exhibit, I made a visit. It's kind of a follow up to the book we read, Mapping the Imagination (previous post here). Maps don't have the appeal to me that I know they have for many artists, but I'm willing to keep exploring them. And I'm almost always happy to analyze something.

The print wing is just one room, but the exhibits there are treated seriously and each features a complimentary full-color booklet that lists the prints. Today's booklet explains that this show looks at how various artists have "represented the world they faced." I thought all art did this, but here the term "map" seems to be used as a catchall for art about a geographical location. Or maybe my definition of a map is too narrow.

The terms "identification" and "contemplation" are mentioned in the booklet. Vija Celmins' Globe (2010) allows for both: she has created, or rather recreated, a familiar globe/map of the earth, by printing on soft Japanese paper, handcoloring it, and sewing it together. It hangs from a wood pole, casting a moving shadow as the air moved by the viewer moves around the globe. I heard other visitors discussing if it was really colored by hand. (No? Really? How could it be?) We identify the globe, then contemplate how it was made.

Flattening becomes a key way to represent a space/place: aerial views are the most obvious use of flattening. Richard Diebenkorn's 1965 prints,  published by Crown Point Press are of hillside intersections in San Francisco. Ed Ruscha's 2001 prints, published by Mixografia Workshop, also show flattened landscapes; they depict single intersections in Los Angeles: Pacific Coast Highway/Sunset Boulevard, and Hollywood/Vine and Pico/Sepulveda and Laurel Canyon/Ventura Boulevard. Ruscha's prints seem minimalistic until you look carefully at the textures (which were physically incorporated into the printing process), the varied colors even in what looks like one color, and the reflective bits scattered throughout. 

Alfred Jensen, one of many artists included, who created a color lithograph in the book 1¢ Life by Walasse Ting (1962), depicted New York City in this spread as a series of color blocks and arrows. We get an immediate feeling of constant movement and excitement just with two kinds of flat shapes used repeatedly. I see buildings and subways and signs. It is identifiable to me (although the fact that the page has a title really helps). Is it a map?

I like the concept that a space identified becomes a place. The booklet suggests that each of these spaces/places are subjective and constantly changing, but it doesn't quite state that these prints represent only one person's subjective point of view in one particular time. Who is doing the identifying? The artist or the viewer? Sometimes just the artist, sometimes both. In Ruscha's work I wondered how you would see the pieces if you had never been to those intersections or just never heard of them. What would they evoke? What could they evoke? Do you fill in the gaps with what you do know? Or do you shrug, puzzled? Although the prints were made in 2001, they could have been made at any time at all. Perhaps the textures and colors and reflective materials are important so everyone can enjoy the works at least on an aesthetic level.

Dorothy Napangardi's print Sandhills, published by Crown Point Press, appears only as pleasing lines of connected dots. But the wall text makes it much more intriguing to me. The piece evokes "paths seen from above" that "…ancestral spirits took across sacred lands…" They are dream dots. For Napangardi, they are specific to Australia. For her, they represent a place, for other viewers, perhaps, they point to an abstract space or to a feeling like a musical chord.

The labels, texts, and contexts help us find our way around the art: a map of the maps.

After viewing the prints I sat on a bench in the room and wrote out my thoughts. I was left wondering about maps, about these maps, and how we classify maps. Identifying a space is an interesting way to see them. Could a series of photographs taken on a walk be a map? Can maps be timeless? Will Ruscha's (and other artists') materials eventually give away the time period in which they were made? Does mapping mean a system? Does mapping mean a grid? Is it a space or a place with a finger pointing to it? Are the lines meant to be followed? If you follow the lines, where do you go? Where are you now? Or do they show where you have already been?

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