The iconic shape of Maine combines the practical and the abstract. We have both the land’s natural boundaries, such as the coastline and rivers, and then we have the straight lines drawn by men on maps.
Modernism in art could be defined as the aggressive introduction of map and diagram logic — flat and based in legibility rather than description — to the photographic single-point perspective of painting from the Renaissance through 19th-century academicism. In other words, modernism challenged the horizontal space in which we live by questioning the vertical space in which we depict it.
I have seen few exhibitions take on the idea of map versus landscape logic as compellingly as Cynthia Davis’ “Standing Navigation on the End of a Needle” at Coleman Burke Gallery in Brunswick.
Davis’ work is easiest to understand in terms of painting, but it combines repurposed maps, weaving, sewing, drawing, collage and more.
It’s a brilliant show, but don’t be intimidated: Davis’ welcoming curiosity is about opening doors — not esoteric self-flattery.
“Standing” features 16 works (with a couple more on the way). These range from a 9-by-12-foot “Map of the World” built out over an immense grid of numbers (a sort of collage map megalopolis) to a pair of 2006 pencil-drawn world maps (six-gore sinusoidal interrupted projections, if you must know) with compass-point geometrical bling.
The “Night Maps” pair feels like the conceptual entry point to the show. After them, Davis realized she didn’t want to make drawings of maps, but to make pictures with maps.
The mediating step might be “Lune” — in which Davis collages three intriguingly cut-censored elliptical world map pieces (gores) onto a background screen-printed like elegantly decorative wallpaper. It’s a wet image — painterly and luscious — and with just enough Victorian tension to set it alight.
“Writing, Page from Atlas With/In” (2011) reaches toward Davis’ full conceptual impact, but without the meandering charm of her best works.
It features a flat map cut so that it maintains three of its margins. On this, Davis has printed page-like matrixes of sewing stitches to look like book-ended pages of looping script. Obscured within these, she prints actual pages from a book about color on which she has painted colors on their names (so “blue” appears as a blue smudge, etc.). This is one of the few pieces that bristles its brainy edge.
The undercurrent of “Standing” is the needle. Davis has spent hundreds of hours sewing works in the show to mobilize ideas about process, patience, women’s work, fabric, surface-as-object, narrative, time-marking, indexing and so on. The primary thrust is that Davis comes across as a patient and diligent conceptual artist who sees meaning in craft, activity/culture and craftsmanship.
“Line, ruminating” is a fascinating 12-foot painting/tapestry of looped and hand-sewn leather cordage. While it initially seems a simple one-off, its inherent technical issues of scale quickly turn this into a conceptually provocative piece brimming with questions about uniformity and the modernist grid (trope), writing, drawing, craft, etc. Whatever mysterious technique she used must have taken months.
A key work is “In this room,” in which Davis cuts and weaves a map as well as sewing a meandering red silk line over a field of fancy floral wallpaper (think 1950s Schumacher). The looping red line hints at blood vessels but pulses with an appealing, vital energy. Davis uses the richly printed wallpaper brilliantly. It’s flatly decorative, and stands up vertically — like a painting.
The internal red of “In this room” is smartly echoed in a trio of float-framed, cut-and-sewn red silk on paper pieces titled “These, united, states.” The paper is large, and breathes importance to the forms (vaguely resembling a tote bag, a state shape and an internal organ).
These are the negative space forms from which the meandering red line of “In this room” was cut. The most amazing of these pieces has a seam along the top edge so that it feels like a state shape — the abstract straight line pairs with/against the practical natural forms.
One of my favorite pieces is “True to scale,” in which Davis makes a giant field of fish scale-like forms from bits of gut (think chitterlings) whose curved edges she paints red (think pork). Around/over this is a large, torn field of Davis’ fancy post-war wallpaper. The textures dance with each other: Two vertical system patterns — one natural, one decorative. They are flora and fauna; sea (fish) and land (flowers); parchment and paper; and so on.
There is something appealingly honest about Davis’ work. She presents the decorative as serious. Her layered but flatly vertical logic is dedicated to literal surface and process narrative — rather than implied space and illusion of past painting.
Her conceptualism may have theoretical heft, but it’s fundamentally commonsensical.
Davis is working on site to make more pieces for the vast gallery space — not something I would expect of an artist whose approach is so laborious, private and process-intensive. But the first piece — a hanging net of wire springs and puzzle pieces — has taken beautiful shape.
The only Maine show I have seen with comparable conceptual depth, range and rigor was Gabriella d’Italia’s 2011 “Pieced” at CMCA — which (coincidentally?) also featured a fiber/sewing idiom. But while d’Italia’s work sizzles with destabilizing brilliance, Davis’ features a quietly appealing and approachable range. It’s not all perfect by any means, but “Standing” is a great show, and it should not be missed.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: