CARTOGRAPHY AS A FINE ART has been one of the more compelling currents within the pluralistic world of contemporary picture making, particularly during the past decade or so. The increasingly mainstream status of this movement was signaled by last year’s publication of The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography by Katherine Harmon. The book is primarily an anthology featuring well over a hundred artists (mostly working in two dimensions) taking the map as both style and subject – alongside such related concerns as networks, complex systems, architectural fantasy and – an often flattened – aerial perspective.
Flatness and aerial imagery have been consistent themes in the work of Trumansburg artist Barbara Page, an experienced pilot and scuba diver as well as a painter, book artist, and relief sculptor of diverse interests and styles. Her best-known work locally is “Rock of Ages, Sands of Time,” an epic mixed-media relief permanently installed at Ithaca’s Museum of the Earth and illustrating, in time-line form, 544 million years of natural history. (Time-lines can be thought of as metaphorical maps, space representing time.) Her style ranges from an austere abstraction to a relatively naturalistic – though still flat and schematizing – approach.
Page’s latest solo show, “The Dot and the Line,” is centered around what might be her most explicitly map-related work yet: a long row of square boards covered with old, off-white (beige, tan) sewing patterns and partially filled in with paint and diverse collage elements. Each is from this year. Playing off of the arcs and grids of the patterns, she constructs sensitively colored geometric abstractions that recall such Modernist forebears as collagist Kurt Schwitters and painters Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian and Richard Diebenkorn – the latter with his explicitly aerial landscape related “Ocean Park” series. (Another reference, somewhat more tenuous is the picture book from which the show gets its name, an abstract fairy tale romance by architect and The Phantom Tollbooth author Norton Juster.) More or less explicit map references include the push pin “dots” (some numbered) that punctuate each, as well as collaged maps and architectural imagery. Titles as well allude to locations: e.g. It Comes With The Territory, Transit. More generally, the sewing patterns’ combination of schematically divided space and notations (numbers, letters, arrows) suggest a neatly ordered Cartesian space.
Several pieces employ irregular columns and/or wavy bands reminiscent of chutes and ladders. In Grand Junction, vertical lines – alternately solid and dashed – also suggest roadways while a range of autumnal oranges define what might be farmland. Collaged snippets (black on tan paper) are taken from an antique cityscape, viewed in three dimensions. Black numbered pins and black painted dots and triangles suggest attempts at defining location. The curving bands – orange, red-brown, white and cool gray – and dense, overlapping bulbous shapes that define Luna Park suggest the workings of human anatomy. The similarly conceived Overpass incorporates a collaged topographical map.
The title of Floating World alludes to the urban(e) Japanese culture of the 17th through mid 19th century Japan, immortalized in the classic ukio-e color woodblock prints. Suitably enough, the piece is particularly elegant in design and evocative in its symbolism. The composition of the piece is reminiscent of a Mondrian that has been tilted slightly counter-clockwise – an ideal spatial order which has been subtly unbalanced. A zig-zag line running across the center suggests both a distant mountain landscape and a graph. (With the title in mind, I am reminded of the philosopher of art Nelson Goodman, who in his book Languages of Art writes of the polysemic potential of such lines: “compare an momentary electrocardiogram with a drawing of Mt. Fujiyama.”) A wavy band above it suggests a river while a vertical line with arrows point downwards as if giving ballast. Accents of turquoise and gold add to a feeling of sensuous decorativeness.
Page’s work, for all its shifts of style, is characterized by a certain coloring-book-like neatness, a desire to subordinate her painterly touch to a linear design. Diritto Filo, then, with its weathered textures and rough collaging of wallpaper and letter stencils (a “J” and an “L”) is an intriguing and welcome departure. A thin strip of a color-coded map key evokes geographical reference. The color is primarily the default light-brown/off-white of the sewing papers.
Outer space is the focus of two older collage-paintings, again on boards (both are from 2004): Red Shift and Celestial Navigation. Bordered by silver painted areas and covered with penciled lines – an all-over grid in the former, orbital arcs in the latter – they suggest board games as much as astronomy. Each is covered in variously colored collaged dots, seemingly cut out with a hole-punch. (These can also be found in some of her 2010 collages, for example in Utopia Parkway where they evoke both confetti and candy hearts.) Although the pieces are primarily monochromatic, some of these dots provide accents of strong color.
A sequence of three ink on vellum drawings from her Live Wires and Dead Ends series uses the schematic language of electrical diagrams to tell a sort of minimalist narrative. Moving from left to right (as we are apt to do) we see an orderly grid of connections devolve into a dense chaos of curves. Although the tension between the schematic and the painterly in her board collages is ultimately more compelling, these drawings do expand our sense of what Page’s art is about.
A long glass vitrine holds samples from her Book Marks series; each represents a book that Page has read over the decades. These mixed-media pieces are done on library check-out cards – themselves objects of nostalgia – and feature collaged papers, stamped imagery and text, plus writing and crude doodles in black marker. Authors, titles and dates vie with stylistic pastiches related to the text referenced, among them the reductive geometry of The Dot and The Line, the flat map imagery of Italian Hill Towns, the 3D aerial view of A Fine Disregard and the board game iconography of Gameboards of America. Although more entertaining than profound, these Marks display a sort of rudimentary vocabulary used to greater effect in her collages.
According to the popular science writer Steven Johnson, our era can be characterized by a manner of seeing and thinking that he calls “the long zoom.” (See in particular his October 2006 New York Times article of the same name.) The zoom sensibility, according to Johnson, consists in the ability to observe and conceptualize space at a multitude of scales: from the cosmic to the subatomic and anything in between. Johnson’s interests lie in the cultural worlds of science and technology rather than the traditional fine arts. Still, a familiarity with the sorts of contemporary art profiled in Harmon’s book reveals parallels to compelling to ignore.
(Other works of culture demonstrating the long zoom include the well-known Charles and Ray Eames film Powers of Ten – which centers on a couple picnicking in a Chicago park and which moves outwards and then inwards towards the limits of scientific understanding – and the French writer Georges Perec’s non-fiction essay “Species of Spaces,” which effects an outward zoom with a literary, meta-fictional twist.)
Although the twelve recent collage-paintings that are the focus of “The Dot and the Line” seem to present a consistent scale (allowing for the ambiguities presented by their abstract quality), Page’s work as a whole embodies a long zoom aesthetic. Her two astronomical pieces here are indications of that. So is the near to the ground point of view that can be found in her Museum of the Earth timeline. As well, her shifts of style can be seen as analogous to the shifts of scientific (or pop-scientific) methodology which characterizes Johnson’s own writings and which he considers another aspect of the zoom approach. A constant in nearly all of Page’s work is a rigorous (though not absolutist) commitment to flatness – a flatness that conflates the visual traditions of mapmaking and modern art. At its best, as in much of the work presented here, Page’s art presents an exploration that is both visually compelling and highly relevant to contemporary developments in our culture.
Flatspace and the long zoom are prevalent today. As another example of the former, one only has to think of the computer screens with which so many of us spend so much of our time. The work of Barbara Page and other similar artists speaks poetically to this sort of condition in which maps, screens and other abstract and schematic images mediate our understanding and experience of the natural world. At the same time, the emphasis on the traditional painterly verities of color and texture and tactility that characterizes much of her work provides a welcome antidote to the sorts of disembodied qualities that our culture often seems to prefer.
Barbara Page’s “The Dot and the Line,” is on view through Sunday, November 28 at the Community Arts Partnership ArtSpace, 171 The Commons (inside the Ticket Center at Center Ithaca).