Maps Guide Viewers to New Ideological Territory in the Boise Art Museum Exhibit, Mapping the Present 

Chris Kenny, "Large Map Circle," 2004.

England & Co Gallery, London

Chris Kenny, "Large Map Circle," 2004.

Since the advent of portable GPS technology in cars and smartphones, paper maps have gone the way of 8-track tapes, record players and bell bottoms—stuffed into drawers or the backs of closets and often never seen again. Now, in the small Boise Art Museum exhibit Mapping the Present, artists are digging out those maps, returning them to places of honor and giving them new voice.


“It's interesting, looking back at this body of work, how little we use maps nowadays,” said artist Julie Cockburn, speaking of a map-based series of 3D collages she completed in the early 2000s. “Just last night I threw away a road atlas from my car which I hadn't used for years since the invention of the TomTom [a GPS device]. I am constantly made aware that this satellite technology enables me to arrive somewhere with little idea of where I actually am.”

Cockburn’s work, “It’s a Crazy, Messed Up World,” illustrates that idea, and is one of 12 pieces by different artists featured in Mapping the Present. Cockburn constructed “Crazy” in 2004 using junk shop atlases, cutting out brightly colored countries and layering them randomly on top of each other to form jagged new continents against a plane of blue ocean. The final result looks like a flattened, disoriented globe. Her commentary on being lost in a world full of direction-giving technology is juxtaposed with other messages: David Kroll’s subtle environmental advocacy, Jena Scott’s analysis of male-driven colonialism and Leo Berk’s investigation of post-9/11 American society, to name a few. Each artwork relies on maps.


click to enlarge Julie Cockburn, "It’s a Crazy, Messed Up World," 2004, construction with map pieces, collected by Driek and Michael Zirinsky. - BOISE ART MUSEUM
  • Boise Art Museum
  • Julie Cockburn, "It’s a Crazy, Messed Up World," 2004, construction with map pieces, collected by Driek and Michael Zirinsky.

“There is little that contemporary artists haven’t done with maps,” said BAM Executive Director Melanie Fales, whose staff curated the exhibition from the collection of local art collectors Driek and Michael Zirinsky. “Artists rip, slice and carve maps; they weave, burn and stitch maps. Artists’ maps are usually less about presenting the world as we know it and more about creating their unique vision of the world and inviting visitors to imagine their own.”


The map in Kroll’s piece, “Flowering Branch,” is painted with oil on linen. The work is a delicate still life in muted jewel tones with an elegant ceramic vase as its centerpiece. A curving stem of flowers extends from the vase and acts as the perch for a red-throated hummingbird. Behind the bird, Kroll painted a map of the Washington coast—where he keeps a studio—in dull blue and warm gold.


“A theme of much of my work is the tragedy of habitat destruction throughout the world and over time,” Kroll said. “Old maps reference old landscapes, they reference an earlier time and place—when there was more and better habitat for wildlife, for all living creatures.”


click to enlarge Tracey Bush, "British Butterflies," 2005, hand-cut vintage maps and found paper, collected by Driek and Michael Zirinsky. - BOISE ART MUSEUM
  • Boise Art Museum
  • Tracey Bush, "British Butterflies," 2005, hand-cut vintage maps and found paper, collected by Driek and Michael Zirinsky.

Tracey Bush’s work, “British Butterflies,” doubles down on the nature theme, showcasing a pinboard of “butterflies” made from layered of maps of Great Britain: a subtle plea to keep real insects out of display cases in favor of paper replicas.

Though it sits beside “British Butterflies” in the BAM exhibit, “Tender Territory” by Jena Scott has an entirely different aesthetic. A collage on cardboard made with polymer clay and paint, the final product looks like a globe, sliced in half and fashioned into two breasts, with pale pink nipples sculpted over the poles. A plaque hanging beside the piece explains that it “explores how the violent history of colonialism might have been avoided if early expeditions had been led by women rather than men,” implying that Scott gendered the globe female in response to its male-dominated past and present.

“River Full of Blood” by Leo Berk also contrasts past and present, although in a much more abstract way. The huge wall-hanging piece looks like a crumpled red stocking, but is actually a technical rendering of Naj Tunich, a cave in Guatemala that Berk said is “known in Mayan culture as the entry to the underworld.” It’s also the spot where Berk stood just 24 hours after 9/11, an event that linked Naj Tunich in his mind to a series of 9/11 related renderings of underground spaces including Osama Bin Laden’s alleged refuge in Afghanistan, the spot where Saddam Hussein was discovered hiding in Iraq and the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania, where the rescue of nine trapped miners gave Americans fresh hope in 2002.


click to enlarge Leo Berk, "River Full of Blood," 2004, sparkle pen on paper, edition 1 of 3, collected by Driek and Michael Zirinsky. - BOISE ART MUSEUM
  • Boise Art Museum
  • Leo Berk, "River Full of Blood," 2004, sparkle pen on paper, edition 1 of 3, collected by Driek and Michael Zirinsky.
Berk found a hand-drawn map of Naj Tunich in a book on Mayan archaeology, and used a computer numerical control machine to “mill” a sculpture based on it. Then, he translated a digital version of the sculpture onto paper by equipping the same machine with a pen loaded with sparkling red ink.


“The entire body of work, for me, looked at American society's descent into the darkness that followed 9/11,” Berk explained.

Find works by the artists described above, as well as pieces by Simon Brett, Jane Dixon, Jane Hammond, Chris Kenny, William Kentridge, Georgia Russell and Jason Wallis-Johnson on display at BAM through Saturday, July 15.


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