Maps have long been a tool of power, a method of understanding, and a method for systematically exploring and recording information. They are inherently instruments of organizational strategy. While geographic maps are the most common and widely used, many artists look to the methodologies and language of maps in order to classify and, in some cases, obfuscate information. Maps, charts, and cartographic language can all serve as reinforcements for an argument. The information within a map is generally understood to be accurate and reliable, but many artists use that assumption in order to deceive or mislead their viewers as part of their work. An example is Lordy Rodriguez’s Island in the Center, 2002, where the artist created abstract and fictitious map images without words as part of a series called “Dislocations”. Joyce Kozloff has worked on themes concerning maps and cartography for the past fifteen years and they have become a very large part of her oeuvre. Her cartographic sensibilities link us to a much deeper and anachronistic view of humanity and the human condition, and three artworks from her independent bodies of non-public works serve to demonstrate differing–yet related–modes of mapping, naming, and subjugation.
As a founding member of the Pattern and Deco Movement of the mid-seventies, Joyce Kozloff grew her career by focusing on public art. Close to home is the Harvard Square station mural, New England Decorative Arts, which was completed in 1985 and signaled the beginning of her focus on public art (Hershman 11). While working on public art projects for subways and public transit stations, Kozloff would routinely come into contact with blueprints, schematics, and city maps of the intricate nature expected of such highly urban settings. This gave her an early exposure to maps, and she indicates that this was the beginning of her use of maps in her work. “As I worked with old diagrams of [Riverside South, New York]… I realized that in my own work, maps would become a device for layering multiple meanings” (Princenthal 32). As she left the public art sphere for a career of private art practice, maps became a central theme in her work.
Imperial Cities, 1994, is a large (55”x55”) collage work that utilizes lithographs and watercolor. The work combines imagery and maps of Rome, Vienna, Istanbul, and Amsterdam alongside images of conquered territories and cultures. Imperial Cities is one of Kozloff’s earliest works to consider the geopolitical implications of territorial conquest (Princenthal 33). The four cities are set in a grid to be contrasted, but one cannot help but compare the shared features of the imperial centers. The act of collage is an inherently archival one, mimicking the layering of lives and civilizations experienced at the apex of power, hubris, and ambition inherent in an imperial center. This is characteristic of Kozloff’s work – Jeff Perrone noted in Artforum in 1976 that Kozloff’s method of working is established in collage. “[T]he formal characteristics of the work… take on greater resonance because they have been decontextualized and then layered—not merely juxtaposed…” (26). Because Imperial Cities is so highly detailed and ornamented in pre-Enlightenment style, there is an anachronism that lends a certain verisimilitude to the work. The cities are both real and fabricated, a view of expanded time across several now-collapsed empires.
One of the most fascinating works Kozloff has created to date is Targets, 2006. While all of her private art practice is inherently political, Targets is political in a very active and confrontational manner. Targets is a three-dimensional sphere measuring 108 inches in diameter. Built primarily of wood, the work has an otherworldly exterior resembling a bathysphere. The inside is covered in eight equally-sized hand-painted maps on symmetric lens-shaped canvases, each indicating all of the sites the United States has bombed since 1945. The imagery comes from Tactical Pilotage and Operational Navigation Charts supplied by the NOAA, a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce (Princenthal 28). Targets is interactive and harrowing – one must physically enter the space in order to interact with the work. A section of the sphere opens on wheels and is behind the viewer, sealing them within a veritable necropolis of past aerial attacks. Viewers have noted that the space is uncomfortable and claustrophobic and that their voices have a tendency to echo eerily back at them. All the while, an oculus at the apex of the sphere (inspired by the architecture of the Pantheon while at a residency in Rome) drips even, sterile white light across the entire space, casting no shadow on the panels (58). Where Imperial Cities felt historical and detached from modernity, Targets hits like a ton of bricks. There is a horror of realization as each of the sites draws specific connections with places such as Bosnia and Afghanistan to one’s consumed news headlines and personal feelings about the associated conflicts. Aside from the personal connection, there is a specific clinicality to the maps. An aerial bomb does not distinguish between civilian and hostile sites, and the maps do not differentiate target sites from non-target sites either. The edges of each “target” merge linearly with each other to create a quilt, operating as both image and text to create a patchwork narrative both obscuring and alluding to very real and terrible events in the same associative method of memory and geography.
From the realm of the uncomfortably real, Kozloff travelled to the realm of the uncomfortably possible. Using tondi as a medium, she both reached into the past (tondi were used to guestimate and attempt to map the heavens and celestial bodies) and look into the possibility of the future. In one set of tondi, imagined wars rage in the heavens as star charts are overlaid with icons and images of their constellational figurations. The jump from terrestrial conquest to interstellar conquest is not a difficult one to make, especially as the method and process feels very much like a pre-Renaissance fresco–bright, active, and figuratively allusive. The most striking and intriguing of these tondi (even if just by scale) is Revolver, 2008. Inspired in part by Lorenzetti’s lost mappamondo, Revolver is an impressive 96 inches in diameter and, as its name would suggest, revolves clockwise with an unexpected rapidity . With clear allusions to literary wheels (wheel of time, wheel of fortune), Revolver is unceasing in its turning and mimics the rise and fall of nations – each quarter representing semi-fictitious astral mythologies of a different civilization. Revolver is divided in 90 degree centers with a concentric center circle dividing the work up into small center wedges and mimicking the center target of a scope. Even the title of the work, Revolver, is a double entendre hinting at both the action of the tondo and the implications of a firearm, and going as far as to allude to the idea of chance, as in Russian Roulette. While Imperial Cities is intriguing, it is passive and allows for casual observation. Targets and Revolver both force the viewer to confront the work or walk away from it. Especially polarizing is Revolver, as the work can only be viewed and appreciated in full in still images (none of which are ever reproduced in a single full view). The outlook of the future appears to be dismal, and this causes the viewer to introspect and analyze what changes could be made in order to avoid such a violent dystopia.
Maps themselves are neither figurative nor completely abstract, but rather they bind time and space. They help us to categorize and imperialize our world. They mark imagined territories, convey knowledge, and can help one to place oneself by providing a rich mine of relative locations. They allow a semblance of self-assurance by orienting and functioning as mirrors, as humans give identity to locations. But like most human conventions, maps are unstable. Boundaries change quickly, and even topography is in constant flux. Symbols, roads, and names of places cause visual interference as they overlap and crowd into the tight spaces within the physical confines of a map. Maps provide a sense of scale, allowing one (as in photography) to “see the unseeable” and study it in depth. Stephen S. Hall, in an essay entitled, “I, Mercator,” argued that humans are constantly orienteering, asking where we have been and where we will go (Harmon 15). Each of us is making a private cartography, processing with synaptic rapidity the terrain we mark. The maps change daily, but such is the nature of a map; they testify to our belief in the value of exploration, and while not intrinsically sentimental, they allow us to fill in the blanks between the places of our lives (17).
Harmon, Katharine. You Are Here : Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination. New York N.Y: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008. Print.
Hershman, Lynn. Women Art Revolution: Interview with Joyce Kozloff. New York N.Y, 2006. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.
Perrone, Jeff. “Approaching the Decorative.” Artforum Dec. 1976: 26. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.
Princenthal, Nancy. Joyce Kozloff. Co+ordinates. Ed. Phillip Earenflight. 1st ed. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Trout Gallery Dickinson College, 2008. Print.