Full disclosure: Maps hold a special place in my heart. Someone I used to love would scrawl me letters on old maps torn from old books. And I can still frequently be found posted up with the giant National Geographic world atlas he gave me, reading it as if it were pop fiction, and tracing my fingers over topographies and borders I haven’t yet seen. The acknowledgment of both the aesthetic and associative power of maps, however, isn’t just personal.
Seth Anderson knows too that maps are about more than directions. He showcases them as objects of beauty and mediates them with his own subjectivity. In a series of nine pieces called Mapping, Anderson creates maps that from a distance look to have been made by computer. It’s where Anderson’s draftsman-like touch wavers that his human hand appears—and the works are much better for it (Google Maps is for destinations; an atlas is for the ride).
Anderson renders borders, rivers, topographies, architectural elements, even text and keys with painstaking exactitude and appreciation for maps’ inherent beauty. Additionally, through clever use of mixed-media, he approximates the muddled, muted colors of maps usually found only from age and use.
The five earlier, smaller works (generally 24-by-24 inches) draw from a motley assortment of 19th century Southwest maps, which, along with some explanatory text, he places side-by-side with the finished pieces. Anderson then emphasizes certain elements of the maps with dark colors, creating the unmistakable abstract shapes of geopolitical boundaries.
“In Territories” depicts in varying shades of gray 1891 Indian nations as designated by the Department of the Interior’s General Land Office. “Division A NM” shows the 1859 proposed division of New Mexico and Arizona. Bernalillo and Santa Fe make up “Two Counties,” whose abstract shapes fall against the life-blood veins of the Santa Fe Trail in 1875.
Although they’re all interesting on their own and espouse the same conceit, their inclusion together seems if not arbitrary, at least random and impersonal. Why these five maps in particular? What do they mean to Anderson?
Anderson really hits his stride in the later, larger (generally 42-by-65 inches) works, wherein he mostly obviates the need for context. These sizable pieces grow even larger through their depth, created by the delicate overlay of geographical, political and architectural lines.
These maps need no introduction and, aside from what gallerists illuminate, viewers aren’t really given one. Perhaps in “Lot 3” one can make out the intersection of I-40 and I-25 and maybe the delicate Xs in “Self Portrait” delineate Anderson’s property, but what really propels these pieces are the lovingly rendered lines: Elevation depicted like wood grain that dissolves into the background, indelible as the hills it represents; familiar, umbilical-cord rivers that make up north/south borders; straight east/west boundaries that appear democratic enough to belie the gerrymandering that made them.
Most notably, atop these works Anderson casts abstract line drawings more emotive than a thousand explanations. For Anderson, a builder and abstract painter, these works represent his first artistic foray into mapmaking but perhaps an obvious combination of two pursuits about which he’s passionate. These pieces shrug off the yoke of context, their meaning scrawled expressively and very personally overtop of what are ostensibly utilitarian reference tools.
Driving home from Denver this weekend, my re-entry into New Mexico was thwarted by a wildfire at Raton Pass that shut down I-25. Fortunately an atlas revealed 160 West as an artery to carry weary travelers home like blood to the heart. However, more than the practicality of such a tool is the beauty it holds and the awe-inspiring drive it represents. Accordingly, Mapping depicts meaning that can’t be found on maps