Paula Scher’s Cartographic Paintings

New York

25 February 2016

At the Bryce Wolkowitz gallery, a giant installation of the American interstate highway system sprawls across the entrance of designer Paula Scher’s exhibition of new cartographic paintings.

Its roads are alternatively red and blue, interlocking and diverging to form an intricate system that connects all fifty states. The colour choices are reminiscent of the human body’s circulatory system, with blue veins and red arteries keeping energy pulsing through the country. For Scher, the United States, in all its vastness and cultural diversity, is a living, breathing entity.

As a graphic designer, Paula Scher’s resume is impressive. The first female principal at the international design consultancy Pentagram, she’s a member of the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame and a recipient of two honourary doctorates. In 2013, she won the National Design Award for Communication Design.

Aside from her design work, Scher is also an artist. In her latest series of paintings, aptly titled U.S.A., Scher tracks trends in population growth, transportation, housing prices, and climate across the country using layered colours schemes and patterns. Each cartographic painting focuses a particular metric, offering observers a fresh lens through which to understand the country’s regional differences.

Scher leaves no inch on the canvas blank. The images are dense with statistical information and her own written observations, and encourage the viewer to take their time to read each map carefully.

With her graphic design skills, Scher transforms data into an absorbing narrative. Text and colour juxtapose to play with hierarchies of information, drawing the viewer’s eye to certain details while de-emphasising others. These maps should not be interpreted as literal fact; they are instead a subjective, personalised reflection on Scher’s own American experience. Another map of the United States created by a different artist, or a traditional map that aspires to accuracy, would not be the same.

The most compelling thing about these cartographic paintings is their play with the fine line between the design and art worlds. Designers look to solve communication challenges with clear answers; their work is about practicality and finding clarity. Artists, on the other hand, embrace ambiguity and subjectivity. Their goal is to raise questions, not to answer them. When we examine a map, we expect a designer’s infographic, one that is accurate down to exact city location, changes in topography, or jagged coastline. Scher’s cartographic images refuse these details. Instead, they celebrate the energy, diversity, and vastness of the country with broad brushstrokes. The designer-turned-artist makes no attempt to create an easily digestible image, but instead offers us an emotional, idiosyncratic version of her own American experience.