Stretching is good exercise, and that includes visual stretching, taking a few minutes to see things anew with a maybe-I-missed-that viewpoint.
Here’s a visual stretch about Jaspers Johns’ painting Two Maps.
Two Maps by Jasper Johns at the Whitney Museum of American Art feels like we’re on a transcontinental road trip, riding shotgun in the front seat, the driver saying “here, you’re the navigator”. But the maps he hands us turn out to be unreadable. Sort of. Johns stenciled the state names and drew enough of their shapes to invite map reading. So we look for signs like where we live, Ohio, and see if these maps can get us to, say, where we are, New York City on a recent visit. Nope. We lean in and look closer at Two Maps seeing remnants of print, book pages, mummified in encaustic, a centuries-old painting medium favored by Egyptian mummy portrait painters. The words Johns uses look torn from books, painted over and encased in amber, then covered with oil paint, thick and thin, losing and finding the words, a paint color we’d say for shorthand’s sake is white, but really is more colors than white, loosely brushed and dripped over the two maps as if the Ice Age has returned and frozen America.
The maps pull the viewer in with the recognizable names and places of US maps, but then, having so caught our attention, subverts the purpose of mapping with different painted imagery. Why did the mapmaker do that? We have Google maps (even Google Earth!) right at hand; but Johns is not a Siri who will tell us where we are. He lets us look around for ourselves, wondering what we’ll find, leaving it to us to find a way and figure this out. The bait is visual symbols we know, and we reflexively expect the maps to do their usual show and tell; but instead, as we look closer, we experience the difference between certitude and the limbo of discovery. The Two Maps encourage an are-we-lost-yet? Lewis-and-Clarkness.
Is the idea of maps-that-don’t-work so new or strange? Recall there were times in America when explorers (and astronauts) set out with no maps, or inscrutable ones, with large unknown regions. How did that feel, sitting in a canoe, a winter’s night closing in, paddle dripping, looking out into a wilderness? A mixture of excitement and fear, it’s the feeling of where-the-blank-are-we exploration, not a GPS monitor reading your exact location on a screen in your hand. So, in this museum of American art, should we say the Johns maps are new, modern, contemporary? Why label it like that? “Old art offers just as good a criticism of new art as new art offers of old,” said Johns. Two Maps straddles old art and new art, old worlds and new worlds, frozen maps, mummified words, old mediums of encaustic, oil, paper, cotton, rearranged into a composition about discovery and the discovering process.
What is this 21st century American place we’re in anyway? Is it still a New World, still discovering?