Critics’ Picks

Paula Scher, Japan, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 88 x 67”.

Paula Scher, Japan, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 88 x 67”.

New York

Paula Scher

Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery
505 West 24th Street
January 12–February 18, 2012

As maps seem wildly alive today, endlessly radiating from smartphones while adapting to the pace of our very footsteps, graphic designer Paula Scher’s sprawling depictions of cities, countries, and continents painted in Technicolor hues on massive canvases feel especially nostalgic. Scher has spent the past two decades as a principal at the design firm Pentagram, creating logos that have become icons of our contemporary cityscape, and it is thus somewhat fitting that her first solo show evokes the rise of the city—which coincides with the age of modernism, a time when belief in the power of factual, objective documentation was infectious.

One could say that the map longs to be a photograph––to index, indisputably, that roads, buildings, lakes, and forests exist in a present space and time. This inevitably makes them bound to fail, as the global physical environment changes at breathless rates. Take, for instance, Scher’s Tsunami, 2006, where sentences detailing demographics from countries including Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Bali spiral over geographic terrain. Painted in a spectrum of mossy greens, burnt oranges, and dirty reds, with splashes of bright whites and blues, the numbers and places seem in rapid flux, creating a vortex of factoids. Here, objective information renders not a precise geographic representation but a sweeping cartographic impression of Southeast Asia, reminding one that just as facts are never static, geography is always partially imagined. By calling the veracity of the map as empirical object into question, the artist poses the kind of postmodern questions that essentially wiped rational humanism off the chart: If all is simulacra, the very concept of a map is null and void. Still, navigating the Philippines is that much better with directions, and, despite the waxing of postmodernism, virtual atlases and encyclopedias increasingly mediate daily experience. The degree of their influence was made palpable last month when Wikipedia shut down its site in protest of antipiracy legislation under consideration by Congress. Tens of millions of visitors were met with the statement “Imagine a world without free knowledge.” Scher’s maps may be far from the neatly organized grids that characterized the apex of the modern city (and from the art that reflected it—think Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942–43), but they are just as aesthetically harmonious—perhaps because, like Wikipedia, Scher acknowledges that facts change so quickly they always risk futility, which means that in order to be useful, information must be free to roam.