New York

Joyce Kozloff

A map is a practical tool, but it is also a picture, and an inescapably romantic one. For it always intimates both travel to places one might visit and imaginings about places one has never been, all evoked through visual contours and through names in every language of the globe, living as well as forgotten. Make the map antique and the fantasy intensifies: On the one hand, all the hard information is out-of-date and useless; on the other, the map becomes an image not just of a landscape but of a way of seeing, a trace of a former, now inaccessible understanding of the world’s shape.

Joyce Kozloff’s “Knowledge” project, a series of copies of maps dating from the second century A.D. to around the early 1800s, heightens this imaginary quality, partly through the medium—fresco, a novel technique for cartography—partly through the oddity of the details Kozloff uses. In one map, it is Cuba, not North America, that fills the tall space between the South American continent and the Arctic Circle; in another, the great metropolis of the British Isles is a city called “Vatford,” in southern Ireland. (You may have to know Watford, a quiet town a little north of London, to grasp the humor of that idea; I would guess that the sixteenth-century artist had Waterford in mind.) The many distortions of fact are compounded by distortions of shape, as the viewer struggles to reconcile peculiar outlines—an arrangement of continents as a neat cloverleaf, say—with the familiar atlas we use today. Indeed the maps are so flawed that you might think Kozloff had introduced their mistakes as satirical jabs at the boy adventurers of the Age of Exploration, the period from which most of her sources date. Actually, though, she copied the old maps as closely as she could. Their many vagaries reflect both the imperfect state of knowledge when they were first made and the mapmaking habits of the time, which involved a healthy degree of piracy—straight copying of preexisting documents. Clearly this became a kind of telephone game, a machine for the production and magnification of error.

A wry result of this practice, and one to which Kozloff is sensitive, is a jumbling of language that is both poetic and nonsensical. As maps were copied from country to country, they accumulated inscriptions in different tongues, with Latin a common thread; an eighteenth-century map of New York and New Jersey will refer both to Citta Vecchia and to Perth Amboy, both to Hackinfack and to Nova York. Thus Kozloff shows rational guide becoming Babel. At the same time, though, she elevates the map in its material form, giving her charts the beautiful, “fresh” color of fresco, and painting them not on flimsy and portable paper but on eight-by-ten-inch slabs of plaster, each an inch and a half or so thick. These bricks adapt a traditional mural-scale form to roughly the size and format of the ceramic tiles on which Kozloff has often worked in the past, tying the “Knowledge” project to the decorative traditions that she has long made her study. They also have an attractive weight and heft, a physical presence in which I am tempted to see another biblical reference (though Kozloff may or may not have intended it), to the tablets of Mosaic law—but once again a law undermined and irrationalized. For beneath the prettiness of Kozloff’s maps is a point not about the comedy of our ill-informed ancestors and the imperfection of their systems of knowledge, but about the imperfection of such systems generally, and about a dreamingly feverish element in the inventions through which we order the world.

David Frankel