Terra Scoped

Contemporary Museum St. Louis discovers treasure with the help of some maps

The map is the quintessential metaphor of postmodernism. The map's authority is always relative, determined by the interests of the mapmaker and historical change. The map (and its relatives the graph, the diagram, the blueprint, etc.) is all about relativity, defining places and people in relation to other things. It is an artifice, a conceptual construction of the world, whose primary function is to afford us a sense of our place in it ("You Are Here").

The artificiality of maps is never more evident than when they fail. Before a recent trip to New York City, a friend gave me a wonderful set of guidebooks and maps she thought would be useful. "Of course," she said, "they all still have the World Trade Center in them. But, you know, they still work." They did still work, partly, but it felt as if they were broken; damaged pictures of the world. Or perhaps they were as accurate as anything -- after all, what could more perfectly capture the surreality of recent events than a document blissfully unaware of their existence?

Terra Incognita: Contemporary Artists' Maps and Other Visual Organizing Systems, an exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, brings together works by ten artists who explore the cultural meaning of maps. More than an exhibit, Terra Incognita is really a conceptual carnival, guaranteed to leave you a little disoriented, physically and intellectually.

It's one of the best shows the Contemporary has staged in recent memory.

Of course, artists and writers have been mining the "map as postmodern metaphor" for years -- think of all that once trendy, po-mo jargon about "mapping the body" and "crossing borders." The map theme has practically become cliché, though it certainly hasn't been exhausted. As curator of Terra Incognita, Mel Watkin's biggest challenge must have been steering clear of that cliché. She has managed beautifully, bringing together works that are intellectually challenging explorations not just of maps but of the larger concept of visual organizing systems and how they shape our understanding of the world. It's all heady stuff, to be sure, but the works are also visually stunning and a lot of fun.

Julie Mehretu's "Untitled" (2001) works as a sort of introduction to the show. The ink-and-acrylic drawing on canvas is divided into two panels. Scattered about are colored lines and planes reminiscent of architectural perspective drawings, but the space they describe is absolutely ambiguous. Adding to the chaos are freehand scribbles and small images of fires. It's unclear whether the scene is exploding out or being sucked back into deep space -- its perspective just won't behave. Mehretu seems to have captured the essence of destabilization.

Mehretu has herself experienced a great deal of destabilization. Her family fled their home in Ethiopia in 1977, and she has lived in a variety of cities all around the world since that time. Migration is a palpable theme in this show -- most of the artists have moved around the world or at least around the country and are in prime positions to reflect on borders and other spatial and psychological delimiters.

Sabina Ott recently returned to California after living in St. Louis for several years. Her "Partly North, Partly South" (2002) is a complex reflection on our fair city and the myriad divisions -- physical, economic, ethnic -- that characterize it. Woven into a stylized topographical map are the words "eros" ("rose" rearranged) and "The World Is Round," which are, like the work's title, derived from the writings of Gertrude Stein. Next to the map is a pile of decals printed with Ott's eros/rose icon -- viewers are meant to take the decals with them and affix them somewhere else, expanding the work's geographic reach.

Ott's works usually require viewers to shift into intellectual overdrive, and "Partly North, Partly South" is no exception. The complexity of the piece is daunting at first, but the work pays off. "Partly North, Partly South" is about crossing divides, fluidity, and movement, symbolized by the reciprocity of love (eros). It's easily the most optimistic work in the show.

A darker humor pervades the two works by Mark Lombardi. In works with unwieldy (yet descriptive) titles such as "Bill Clinton, the Lippo Group, and China Overseas Shipping Company (a.k.a. COSCO), Little Rock-Jakarta-Hong Kong, c. 1990s, 5th Version" (1999), Lombardi charts political and financial scandals and fiascoes. His pieces are vast networks, carefully hand-rendered, with names of key figures circled and arrows and lines indicating asset flows and personal connections. Lombardi is merciless, mapping with deadpan detail the mind-boggling range of his chosen scandals. But his pieces have a gentle, graceful visual character that is in direct contrast to their subjects.

Whereas Lombardi deals in objective truth and researched information, Michael Banicki's works belong to a purely subjective knowledge base the artist is constructing. Banicki's pieces appear at first glance to be abstract patterns or textile designs. Closer inspection reveals that they are grids, with sets of data compared along an x-y axis. Banicki uses his rating system on the unlikeliest of subjects -- small towns, mosses, weeds -- and the "ratings" he generates are indexed to nothing more than his own opinion. There is something antiquated about the entire enterprise, as if the artist were trying to organize a subjective encyclopedia by hand. Banicki's works pay homage to bygone forms of classification and are the most nostalgia-laden works in this show.

Terra Incognita also includes artists who work more literally with maps, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Irish artist Kathy Prendergast's "Lost" (1999) is an accurate geographical map of the United States, though the city and town names have been replaced by variations on the "lost" theme: Lost Gulch, Lost Valley, Lost Creek. Prendergast attempts to undercut the sense of security and direction that maps normally deliver, but the piece is conceptually somewhat limited. Lordy Rodriguez fares much better with his maps, which perform warped feats of geographical switcheroo. Guillermo Kuitca's "San Juan de la Cruz" (1991) is a nightmarish roadmap of Mexico in which every large city is named San Juan de la Cruz, and every road leads there with stifling, inescapable sureness.

Rounding out the exhibit are outstanding works by Greg Colson, Nina Bovasso and Ron Laboray. Laboray's projected CD-ROMs, "Weather Machine" and "Moveable St. Louis" (2002), aren't particularly effective. But his paintings, "Wilma in Bedrock #1, U.S. Geological Survey" and "Fred in Bedrock #1, U.S. Geological Survey" (both 2002), are twisted, hilarious "mappings" of the cartoon characters' colors onto a schematic representation of Colorado and surrounding Western states. Laboray has produced a pseudoscientific geography of popular culture; it's absolutely brilliant.

Terra Incognita really shouldn't be missed. It's an exhibition that lives up to its imposing theme, in terms of the work and the artists themselves, who hail from all parts of the globe. Even more impressive is the fact that the show manages to be cliché-free while exploring territory that is usually rife with cliches. Kudos to the Contemporary.

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