New York

Doug Martin

Charles Cowles Gallery

Of late, there has been much ado about mapping in Manhattan. Curator Robert Storr mounted his ode to the cartographic at the Museum of Modern Art last fall, prompting a counter-exhibition at the SoHo gallery American Fine Arts. Both shows clearly demonstrated that mapping is more than a means of navigating space, indeed in the hands of an artist it often becomes a quasi-conceptual mode of representation.

Offering a somewhat different spin on this now well-trodden territory, Doug Martin often paints directly on the maps he selects, teasing the cartographer’s lines into his own territorial vignettes to produce strange juxtapositions of scale and pictorial information. In Violet Woods, 1993–94, a small stand of pines fills in the miles-wide gap between river and mountains, while in Green Land, the slow bend of a river becomes a crook in a stream meandering through a meadow. Other works forego the thing itself, but are painted so as to evoke the labyrinthine schema, modulated tones, and carefully rendered minutiae that characterize the cartographic. X + O (Hoarfrost), 1992–93, for example, is an expansive, detailed view of a scrubby clearing on an overcast day. It’s distinctly nonpicturesque, one of nature’s nonsites, such as those Neil Welliver has a penchant for framing in his paintings of the Maine woods. The smaller Study for Star Stuff “Grey Tree,” 1994, focuses on a section of tree trunk and branches that radiate into a network of tiny lines, as if to map out a jumble of intersecting routes, then crackle into an even more abstract fringe of Piet Mondrian-esque hatch-marks and crosses. In these paintings, the vagaries of nature and abstraction happily, even romantically, coexist.

The terrain in all of Martin’s works is specific to New York’s Hudson River Valley. He prefers nonrecreational Geological Survey maps, the kind that don’t fit in a hiker’s pocket but tend to belong to curious landowners and assiduous students of the terrain. (In one work, the site of the artist’s own home is carefully marked.) In a more Ruskinian context, this might imply that the artist and map-maker are dispensing equally truthful information about place. There is too much playfulness and subjectivity in these works, however, to support such presumably objective adherence to the factual, evidenced by moments such as those when the map’s spindly delineation of a stream breaks into the artist’s representation of a rocky, treelined gorge. (Adding a less palatable ounce of irreverence, the tides of these works read like dreadful rock-’n’-roll riffs, i.e., Star Stuff, Take Me to the River, Round About.) Martin’s paintings make a comedy of mapping: as his subtle interventions indicate, things laid down in pretty pinks and greens may look manageable enough on paper, but often turn out to be nonnegotiable on foot.

Ingrid Schaffner