In late 1994, the exhibition Mapping opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Mounted by then-curator of painting and sculpture Robert Storr, the medium-sized exhibition comprising 30 pieces by as many artists considered the rich topics of cartography and wayfinding in contemporary art primarily through the narrow aperture of aesthetics. More than two decades on, Storr’s thesis is contextualized and expanded upon in Seeking Civilization: Art and Cartography, on view at San Francisco's Gallery Wendi Norris through May 6.
Seeking Civilization is not a re-staging of the MoMA installation. In a generously paced presentation of work by seven artists who live in the Bay Area or are represented by regional galleries, curator and gallery program director Justin Charles Hoover illuminates many of Storr’s organizing principles, including knowledge production and project prototyping. He also further develops other themes -- most importantly, the physical and psychological boundaries that confine us, and how they are often defied.
Seeking Civilization is anchored by Miguel Angel Rios’ Le Premier Voyage a L’inconnu (The first trip to the unknown), a version of which was included in the original MoMA installation. Drawn from a reproduction of a map created by Christopher Columbus’ expedition team, this deconstructed image bears none of the authority and order typically associated with maps. It visualizes what Storr described in his catalog essay as “the ultimate pictorial coincidence of exacting representation and total abstraction,” with deliberate emphasis on the latter.
Two additional pieces by Rios hung around the corner from Le Premier also take up cartographic abstraction and demonstrate the artist’s long-term interrogation of colonialism’s disastrous legacy. The inclusion of work by Rios, who is represented by the gallery, solidifies the link between the two exhibitions succinctly, and without overt referentialism.
In general terms, maps help us navigate unfamiliar places and, more expansively, demarcate a country’s physical place on the globe. Artists Guillermo Galindo and Michael Arcega approach mapping as an urgent social justice pursuit. Working with weather-beaten flags found at the U.S.-Mexico border and donated by the aid organization Water Stations, Galindo composed sound scores printed directly onto the flags. The frayed fabric superimposed with the composer’s marks gesture to modernist abstract compositions and, more poignantly, imagine the dangers of migrant travel through a violent physical and socio-political environment.
Arcega, whose work reflects interests in geography, history, and imbalanced power relations, adapts Polynesian stick charts used for oceanic travel. Prih-Sohn Stick Chart (Map of Isolation Chambers) roughly marks through bamboo and crystals the locations of solitary confinement units nationwide. Arcega's minimal installation reminds us that those enmeshed in the penal system disappear all too easily from collective consideration. And once lost, they may never be found.
Occupying the gallery’s anterior space, works by Omar Mismar and Taraneh Hemami take up wayfinding as a measure of lived experience. Mismar’s The Path of Love #03, a radiant wall-sized neon installation, visualizes paths Mismar walked while trying to get closer to men he first saw on the Grindr dating app and hoped to meet. His map reflects technology as it facilitates romantic potential, or thwarted desires, and deepens his investigation into how queer love is expressed.
Taraneh Hemami’s Recounting fuses the personal and historical as a measure of time’s passage. The artist’s young life in Iran and her arrival in San Francisco shortly before the Iranian Revolution are represented by red wax marks superimposed over a classical Persian calendar. Together, the data points resemble the rings in a cross-section of a tree. Hemami’s account of her personal and professional journey doubles as a humbling reminder of life’s brevity, and satisfaction that may only be understood once a journey is well underway.
An exhibition composed entirely of artists with substantive personal and professional ties to San Francisco, Seeking Civilization acknowledges the city as a geographic terminus that, currently and as before, attracts newcomers motivated by myriad aspirations. Through Hoover's incisive curatorial thinking and economic presentation strategy, mapping becomes a means to approach if not understand our precarious social and political climate through contemporary art, and what may lie in store for us on an as yet unknown path.
'Seeking Civilization: Art and Cartography' is on view at San Francisco's Gallery Wendi Norris through May 6. For more information, visit gallerywendinorris.com.