Thursday, February 10, 2011

Elisabeth Munro Smith

Elisabeth Munro Smith, From here to there, 2010, Basswood, oriental bittersweet, cedar, masonite, acrylic paint

            Last Thursday, I was able to meet and speak with the sculptor Elisabeth Munro Smith, whose exhibition Going from Here to There: New Work about Landscape will be on view at AIR Gallery in DuMBO until February 27th. Smith's sculptures are similar to R. Justin Stewart's in that they are full of references to maps and map making. They are also similar in that they represent space, distance, and proximity in a very particular kind of abstraction.

            You might say that all maps (even those that don't present themselves as works of art) could be described this way. On one hand, what we rely on from maps is very similar to what we hope from paintings, drawings, and most of all photographs—that is, an ability to describe space and distance as they appear in nature. There is a certain satisfaction in representing the world as faithfully as possible that the craft of map making seems to embody. One is overcome with this sense of dedication to accuracy when looking at certain Dutch landscapes or still lifes from the Seventeenth century, and it's worth mentioning these when you consider that that particular "visual culture" held astronomy and map making in very high esteem (see: Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing, University of Chicago Press: 1983). When I was a little kid, when I first recognized the lines and shapes from a globe in what I could see in a photograph of the Earth taken from space, my first thought was, "Cool. A map looks just like that." We generally think of maps as  pieces of representational graphic art, meant to imitate nature passively and without distortion.

            There are, however, many instances in which maps are distorted quite intentionally. To make elevation sensible on the textured surface of a basketball-sized globe, the height of the Andes and Himalayas relative to the size of the Earth is exaggerated by a several degrees of magnitude. To make the Uptown-Downtown axis parallel to the North-South poles, the New York MTA reorients its subway maps about twenty degrees:

            This isn't the only way in which it might make sense to compare subway maps to certain map-oriented works of art. In addition to tilting the North-South orientation, the paths on subway maps are generally made bolder, straighter, and with fewer nuances and curves, all to make them simpler and easier to read.  Maps that display stops as a series of dots along a straight horizontal line take this schematization one step further, giving you all the information you really want, and ruling actual physical space almost out of intelligibility. A map of locations is virtually converted into a map of ideas.
            All of these adjustments are--for lack of a better way to describe them--abstractions, and while relative space is still relevant, it isn't really more important than the purposes of the viewer and the ideas the map maker is trying to convey. I hope I'm not selling short the work of Stewart, Smith, or Ben Joyce (or any other artist whose work engages with topography, for that matter) when I say that this is true for their work as well. As a craft, map making offers artists who are accustomed to working in abstract modes the opportunity to use skills that are usually geared towards mimetically representing nature. For artists who are interested in depicting proximity, distance, or direction (figuratively or otherwise), this can be very attractive.

Going from Here to There: New Work about Landscape is on view at A.I.R. Gallery (111 Front St, #228, Brooklyn, NY) from February 2 to February 27. The gallery is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 AM to 6 PM.

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