Monday, June 08, 2009

Cartographic Diaries

I wrote this essay to accompany Val Britton's "Constellations." Val's work is part of "The Echo Fields," a two-person exhibit at Johansson Projects Gallery in Oakland.

The tangled route-lines and fictitious continents in Val Britton’s collaged drawings are based on the graphical vocabulary of maps, but instead of charting a course from one point to another, they trace her journeys through the blurry terrain of memory and imagination.

Val began drawing imaginary routes as a way to connect with her father, a long-haul truck driver who died in 1994 when she was 16.

At first, her images were based on maps of the United States. Later, when Val was a graduate student in painting, drawing, and printmaking, the search for her father merged into her efforts to try to process a series of realizations, both artistic and personal, that defied articulation.
Her aesthetic evolved to reflect the transformation of her thinking. Her marks and lines became more abstract, alluding to the fluid territory between the known and the unknowable. Val says, “I think about tracing and retracing paths. And how doing that makes them known and familiar. I think about how things layer and get all tangled up.”

Her process evolved too; the daily practice of drawing, painting, cutting and collaging became a meditative exercise in developing her intuition, as both an artist and a person coming to terms with loss and confusion.

In Val’s recent works on paper, layers of organic and geometric shapes are restrained to an almost black and white palette, punctuated by bursts of somber, cool hues. The resulting effect - a sandwich of emotional tension and visual harmony - signifies the ongoing interplay between abandon and restraint, echoing Val’s continual search to organize her thoughts about life and death while accepting a certain amount of chaos and uncertainty.

While Val’s lines are made with a cartographer’s precision and a dreamer’s sense of abandon, her drawings are constructed with a printmaker’s sense of pictorial space. “I love unique, soft marks,” she says, “and I build images from back to front.” Her subtle depth of field suggests landscapes defined more by groundlessness than by physical space.

Val’s working methods are similar those of a digital artist, even though she uses physical media instead of a computer. “I’m taking a group of elements and remixing them endlessly,” she explains. She adds, subtracts, and combines, filling the paper with pencil marks, ink blotches, cut-out shapes, tape, and graphite until she reaches the precise balancing point between “less is more” and “too much is not enough.”

“My works on paper help me piece together the past and make up the parts I cannot know,” she says. “Mapping serves as a metaphor for searching, an implication of the unknown in wide, open spaces, and a record of how we see where we've been.”

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