Friday, February 15, 2013

Maps as Art, Art as Maps

“Contemporary Cartographies” An exhibit of artwork using maps as their foundations.  February 5 – May 11, 2013

Maps are very “in” these days.  Everywhere we go, it seems, we see maps as framed wall art, murals, clothing, furniture, cell phone covers, and in every which way incorporated into daily life.  In one of my next posts, I am going to explore some of these trendy uses of maps, which are legion!  In this same vein, maps, now more than ever, are being incorporated into art.  So in addition to the “low-brow” use of maps for commercial appeal and as a design motif (mainly employed to sell stuff – some pop culture maven pronounced that maps are cool so now everyone thinks so!), maps also have acquired a caché as a “high brow” motif in “fine art.”  (I put “fine art” between the quotes, because not everyone agrees with the artificial and tortured distinctions between the practical arts and the fine arts, including myself.  But it remains a fact of life that galleries sell fine art, and stores sell the other kind). 
So there are maps used for “commercial” purposes, and then there are maps as fine art.  Then, (and let’s not lose sight of the fact) there are the maps created for a particular (actual geographical!) purpose by cartographers (and would-be cartographers since now – since Google Earth and VGI - “anyone can make a map!”).  There is a fine line, and one might even say not a boundary line of demarcation at all, but a blending, between the cartographer as artist and as scientist.  I think that many of my blog posts have demonstrated the combined art and science of cartography, and that is what so many people find fascinating about maps.  In addition to being beautiful, maps are also informative, and I would argue that many of these would fall under the heading of “map art,” telling us everything from how to get from Point A to Point B, to where all the oil rigs are in the Gulf of Mexico, (a nice example of a Google-type map with user-added thematic info) to a way of visualizing from which countries immigrants come and in what proportion they make up the immigrant pool in the host countries, via typographic maps (maps using text – typography – to create the map image), to maps making a political/social point such as the number of inhabitants per doctor in the world (using ratios/numbers to make up the landform shapes).   to “cool” street-wise views of urban life, such as "The Street Wear Map,” a mapping of the various brands of sneakers hanging from power lines between the Orange and the Red line subway alignments in greater Boston, using ArcGIS, Google Street View, Illustrator, and Photoshop, by David Buckley Borden at 

But then there are actual artists, who make no pretense of being cartographers, per se, and aren’t particularly interested in showing us how to get anywhere via graphics, or in showing us a new way to visualize quantitative data.  These artists work with maps and map imagery as an underlying basis for their art, but maps are more of a backdrop for them, or a way to explore the relationship in art amongst space, time, color, texture, emotions, and narrative.  Maps are so evocative.  Who isn’t put into a reverie, or even a trance, when faced with a map?  In many cases, these artists use map imagery to express the geography of their souls. 
Now, at the Lehman College Art Gallery in Da Bronx, they are showing some contemporary artists who use map imagery in their work.  The exhibit is called “Contemporary Cartographies,” and its curators describe it as follows: “The exhibition will include a group of contemporary artists who uses the language and imagery of maps to communicate an array of ideas.  Artists in this exhibition work in various styles, adapting, manipulating, and inventing maps to giving them new meanings.  Some of them use fictional narratives and create imaginary cartographies; others conceive a work that updates the new geopolitical orders. Still others approach the map aesthetically or as material in itself. Humor too plays an important role in defining these borders.”  From
            One of my favorite map artists (I would actually term her a cartographer if I had to chose between that occupation and artist) is Paula Scher, whose work appears in the Lehman show.  You can check out her stuff at  and also on various of my blog postings, such as the one on typographic maps at
Here’s one of hers –South America.  I love it because it shows the Galapagos and the Falkland Islands as little inset vignettes, floating as bubbles in the ocean. 
There have been other art-map exhibits such as Pratt Gallery’s 2010 “You are Here: Mapping the Psychogeography of New York” which was featured in my blog about unconventional NYC maps   You can see more of the Pratt exhibit at  Artist Liz Hickok and several work-study students worked morning til late-evening for 10 days to build "Fugitive Topography: Jelly NYC, View From the Staten Island Ferry."
A similar exhibit of art-maps was assembled last year (November, 2011) by the Central Booking Art Space in Brooklyn called “Mapping the Surface.”  Maddy Rosenburg, the gallery’s director and curator, writes: “We are accustomed to looking at maps in attempts to find direction, our relationship to a physical interpretation of the land. But that land can be more than a city or country, it can help us to navigate our bodies, to understand our environment beyond its physicality into the realm of cultural space, and to grasp an understanding though the visceral. Cartographers can tell us more than just the routes from one point to another, they can map terrains of landscape or psychological space, that amorphous state that adds up to a sense of a place beyond mere cataloging. They can also reduce all to the basic, the pure essence of line and plane. We may glide across the surface but there always seems to be a rumble below it, roaming around a skin that is, as skin is, porous and organic.” 
This description is getting very close to psychogeography and emotion mapping, as I discuss in my post on the topic.  Most of these types of maps come across as “art” to me.  Many of these works are not too distantly related to mental mapping, as well. 
I have put together a little collection of my own (recent and otherwise) favorite art-maps, or maps as art, or art as maps, for your viewing enjoyment, starting with the grand-daddy of interpretive maps, by Jasper Johns, his 1961 “Interpretive Map of the United States.” 

Jasper Johns, 1961, Interpretive Map of the United States

And here’s Nam June Paik’s 1995 "Electronic Superhighway," from the Smithsonian

Artifacts (detail) 2011, water-soaked map fragments, adhesive, paper 30 x 44 “Shannon Rankin’s intricately patterned installations explore the relationship between physical place and intangible experience.”  “In search of finding connections between geography, anatomy, and botany, I combine the visual elements of maps, anatomical illustrations, and natural forms to explore themes of travel, healing, and time.  I create installations, collages and sculptures that use the language of maps to explore the connections among geological and biological processes, patterns in nature, geometry and anatomy.  Using a variety of distinct styles I intricately cut, score, wrinkle, layer, fold, paint and pin maps to produce revised versions that often become more like the terrains they represent. These new geographies explore notions of place, perception and experience, suggesting the potential for a broader landscape and inviting viewers to examine their relationships with each other and the world we share.”  Shannon Rankin

The Keeper by selflesh (who appears to be the alter-ego of Shannon Rankin).  Image measures approximately 8" x 14"  An archival print of an original map collage made with vintage maps, embroidered with blue thread and painted gouache dots.

Beirut Caoutchouc, by Marwan Rechmaoui, 2004, Engraved rubber, 3 x 825 x 675 cm.  The Saatchi Gallery 
Marwin Rechmaoui is a Lebanese artist whose work often deals with themes of urban development and social history.  His Beirut Caoutchouc is a large black rubber floor mat in the shape of Beirut's current map.  Embossed in precise detail with roads and byways and segmented into 60 individual pieces demarcating neiborhoods, Rechmaoui's installation scrutinizes the physical and social formation of one of the world's most conflicted cities.  Through this piece, Rechmaoui highlights there divisions to question the underlying causes and consequences of cultural difference, affiliation, and identity, and explore how the city's troubled history has both impacted and shaped the everyday lives of its inhabitants.  
Detail from "Cambridge," Human Geographies, by Ed Fairburn

A couple by Bill Will, Portland, Oregon installation artist, and teacher at the Oregon College of Art and Craft.  I love that, on his website, he lists the lat-long coordinates of his studio location!  

1000 Chrysler Drive, Auburn Hills, Michigan, from the series “Anthropocene,” kaleidoscope-inspired aerial images from Dublin photographer David Thomas Smith
“Composited from digital files drawn from aerial views taken from internet satellite images, this work reflects upon the complex structures that make up the centers of global capitalism, transforming the aerial landscapes of sites associated with industries such as oil, precious metals, consumer culture information and excess. Thousands of seemingly insignificant coded pieces of information are sown together like knots in a rug to reveal a grander spectacle.
Questions of photographic and economic realities are further complicated through the formal use of patterns that have their origins in the ancient civilizations of Persia. This work draws upon the patterns and motifs used by Persian rug makers, especially the way Afghani weavers use the rug to record their experiences more literally with vivid images of the war torn land that surrounds them.
This collision between the old and the new, fact and fiction, surveillance and invisibility, is part of a strategy to reflect on the global order of things.” From the artist’s website, and check out some of his other images at
Also check out the website Rorschmap.  It creates the same type of composites (albeit, in lower quality) using Google Street View images.

Antarctica Penguin Map Collage, by dadadreams at

 The Hudson River and its Watershed, hand-drawn map by Redstone Studios
I am not sure it we should categorize these two as "art" or "cartography," but all the maps by Redstone Studios are like this: hand drawn maps, commemorating personal events or interests, usually by commission, and all incredibly detailed and beautiful.

Attribution unknown.  Indiana Map Girl

Hieronymus Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights - The exterior (shutters).
And here are a couple of oldies but goodies: the outer panels (exterior shutters) of the triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” by Hieronymus Bosch, 15th century Nederlandish artist.  It shows the creation of the world, probably on the Third Day, during the creation of plant life, but before the appearance of animals and humans.  This stark grey-green world is in sharp contrast to the inside of the painting, the vivid and lustful garden of paradise, paradise lost, and hell. 

Pencil Sketch of “The Days of Creation,” by Edward Burne-Jones, 1871.
This one I just came across recently on the excellent “The History Blog.”  It is a study sketch by one of my favorite Pre-Raphaelite artists, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and coincidentally also depicts the creation of the world.  It was a study for a painting, but there was also a series of stained glass windows fabricated by William Morris for a church in Northamptonshire based on the same sketches.  “The picture is divided into six compartments, each representing a day in the Creation of the World, under the symbol of an angel holding a crystal globe, within which is shown the work of a day.  For instance, in the first compartment stands the lonely angel of the First Day, and within the crystal ball Light is being separated from Darkness.”  Wow.  From:

And don’t forget to (re-)visit my post about the memorable and creative “Bogus Art Maps” by students in Geovisualization and Analytical Cartography class a couple of years ago, where the maps are created in the style of various famous artists, at , and David Carter’s painting of Europe According to Vincent van Gogh at  Also, also, see the Hand-drawn Maps at the London Museum

So, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of contemporary and past art-maps.  If any of you have any favorite art maps, please e-mail them to me at and I will post them, as appropriate. 

UPDATE: Feb 20, 2013
For all of you interested in mental mapping, memory mapping, psychogeography, etc, I recommend taking a look at the website
about Bath's Annual Fringe Visual Arts Festival (Bath, of course, as in Bath, England, the locale of the famous Roman baths and a beautiful Georgian crescent city).  Anyway, this year they are focusing on mapping their city, kind of citizen mapping, and exhibiting the results in something called "Is This Bath?"
Some of their suggestions for making a personal, unofficial map of your city are really nice, and I would love to see someone do something like this in NYC.  Very cool! 

Here is part of what they say, but check out some of the actual maps on the site. 
"Call for Submissions:
Opportunity to create and exhibit your own map of Bath as part of Fringe Arts Bath.
An invitation for work that creatively ‘maps’ an individual’s interpretation of Bath. Not judged on geographical accuracy, inventive submissions based on genuine experience will be merited. Work might enlighten the visitor, amuse the local or challenge a perception of Bath.
What have you experienced in Bath that 'official' maps of Bath don't communicate?

The possibilities are endless, for example....
* A map of your dog's favourite walking route
* The best cider pubs (and what happened there!)
* Places you've worked
* Memories of a student past
* Benches you've eaten a pasty on
* Holiday encounters with Bath
* Pigeon hotspots
* The location of your dream property portfolio"

UPDATE February 26, 2013:
Also see
for my February 23rd, 2013 presentation on "Cartography and Communication: Telling the Story with Maps," in conjunction with the "Contemporary Cartographies" exhibit at the Lehman Art Gallery. 


  1. Just a thought: has anyone yet taken a large apple and carved the 5 boroughs of NYC on it?


  2. What a fantastic blog! Just to let you know - I'm curating an exhibition in Bath, UK, titled Is this Bath? for which I have asked people to submit maps of their experience in the city. The idea is to convey Bath as more than a place to visit, but a place to live. I'm featuring your blog on the exhibition's website (I hope you don't mind!)

    1. Wonderful! I don't mind at all, thanks for the mention. I have also referred my listserv to your website, although most of them, sadly, don't live in Bath, so won't be able to participate in the exhibit or mental mapping. Good luck with the unofficial mapping of Bath, I will look forward to seeing the results.

    2. Brilliant, thank you for sending that link out. Yes keep an eye on the website to see how it develops, and I'll continue looking at your blog to see what other map artists are up to!

  3. This is the first time i read your blog and admire that you have posted on this...I really found useful.Keep updated.

  4. Thanks for the great post on your blog, it really gives me an insight on this topic.

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