Glen Helfand

From the Ground Up: Matthew Picton’s Ascending Perspective

If you’ve ever entered your own address into the mesmerizing, satellite-enabled gadgets known as GPS, MapQuest, and Google Earth, you may, as I was, be surprised at the unfamiliarity of the results. From an aerial perspective, “home” looks entirely different in scale and contour. My roof appears flat and gray, the adjacent hillsides leached of color, the ocean an almost blackish shade of green. The highways form pleasing grids and subtle curves that just don’t reflect the irritating experience of traffic. This kind of disconnect has always been embedded in maps, which turn townships and nations—the entire world—into manageable arrangements of color and shape. In the contemporary moment, however, technology has made mapped terrain infinitely more visually accessible and more complicated. We all have on-demand jetliner views of anyplace we’d like to see.

Cities, or sections of them, are often created on modernist grids or other grand, idealistic schemes set down by architects, planners, and developers. They’re pleasing to view from above, yet rarely do they seem so orderly, spatially or socially, to their actual inhabitants. No place is quite as structurally sound as it appears on a map or from lofty heights.

This condition describes the exciting shift in perspective conveyed by Matthew Picton’s recent works, in which he augments the view from above with historical data and an astute aesthetic sensibility. His compositions seem simultaneously familiar and foreign: multilayered, multihued images of contemporary cities that illustrate the dazzle and conceptual abstraction of the global condition. We can never fully comprehend the information embedded in an actual cityscape, and Picton shows us places we know while gently challenging our perceptions. In this age of easy travel and Internet internationalism, the meaning and flavor of a specific place is less distinct and more theoretical. By taking topographical, cultural, and historical information and transforming it into line and color, Picton conveys the complexity as well as the confusion that form the evolving states and souls of major metropolitan areas. He calls these pieces City Sculptures.

In 2004 Picton began the antecedents of these new pieces: a few extensive series that literally came from the ground, or, more specifically, areas covered by asphalt. His Road Surface Drawings, Cracked Parking Lot Drawings, and Cut-Out Drawings began with the artist kneeling down and tracing, or making rubbings of, the tiny, pronounced fissures in actual surface terrain. The resulting works (Briscoe School Playground, for instance, or Tolman Creek Road, Ashland, OR, whose title refers to the modest metropolis the artist calls home) are direct representations of the ground, albeit highly edited and abstract. Skeins of hairline cracks suggest spiderwebs, or the jagged lines of a hospital heart-rate monitor. These sites are traversed every day, yet no one would recognize them in this form.

A similar dynamic is at work in Picton’s more recent projects based on city maps. Whereas the Road Surface Drawings create a skewed, ear-to-the-ground microperspective, his City Sculptures channel a similar sense of abstraction via a distant, macro view. The artist is interested in major metropolises and geopolitical hot spots that we might see all the time in news reports but would be hard-pressed to recognize. An initial glimpse of Baghdad (2007) looks like a street guide to a quaint trade city with a river running through it. But the artist has embellished and expanded it, adding layers that chart the Baghdad’s development over time. What, after all, is a city without its past? The river is articulated in sky blue, serving as both a prominent dividing line and a geological feature that has helped the region become a trade zone but does not, in itself, give any clue to the volatility of the place today. A foundational layer delineated in black reflects what Baghdad looked like in 1944, when it was a tiny desert settlement. Other layers express its current identity as a metropolis with a population in the millions and neighborhood divisions based on religious sects and military occupation. Picton depicts the mediated, mutable Green Zone in a shade of its namesake color, acknowledging, in a way, the accepted but somehow abstract meanings of mapmakers’ color decisions. (How did Mexico City end up with a Zona Rosa?) Picton maintains the official color codes of the city’s subway system while assigning other areas his own, arbitrary colors.

Picton etches the layers of his works onto thin plastic sheets, brand name Dura-Lar. He then combines these layers into a single entity, separating the strata with thousands of pins of varying length. The complete, surprisingly sturdy pictures are two-dimensional maps expanded into sculptural space and, in a sense, into time. When he looks at maps, the artist says, the forms seem to leap out, “demanding a sculpture to be made.” His projects can take up to two months to complete. Picton’s selective, multidimensional “atlas” currently includes Berlin, Chicago, Cologne, Manhattan, Madrid, Milan, New Delhi, Rotterdam, Washington DC, and others, and he has mentioned Las Vegas, Lagos, Jerusalem, and Mumbai as possible future subjects. They all exemplify to varying degrees the sprawl, population growth, and overall expansion that interest him. That so many of the finished works bring to mind circulatory or nervous systems (they don’t call them traffic arteries for nothing) only attests to the living, breathing, evolving nature of cities.

As opposed to his previous works, the City Sculptures find Picton engaging with a different kind of specificity and increasingly complex modes of representation. The cracks he worked with before were accidental, entropic occurrences; pavement is human-made, but the wear occurs organically. The grid of a city, while evolving with its own share of chaotic shift, is more directly reflective of culture. To create his city-based works, Picton engages in extensive research, poring through university archives (he studied politics and history at the London School of Economics and Political Science) in search of historical maps and information. To create his map of London, he began with an overview of the city after the great fire of 1666, whose historical information he then grafted onto a 1749 map and another from the nineteenth century expressing the impact of industrialization. For his map of Paris, he was specifically interested in the prerevolutionary settlement—the appearance of the city before Baron Haussman imposed upon it his proto-urban design. Picton often gravitates toward maps from eras close to key or defining moments in a city’s history.

Not all the information he conveys is topographic. His piece depicting Berlin is composed entirely of street names, which have changed over the years to reflect shifts in political regimes and economics. He arranges the information into three chronological layers: the eve of Nazi upheaval in 1932; the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1962; and the unified, heavily rebuilt landscape of 2007. Picton’s layers cause words to merge, as the texts at the base are obscured by the buildup of transparent surfaces. This lack of clarity reflects the reality of the city, where street names change as history is rewritten, resulting in, for instance, the not-so-mysterious disappearances of Kaiser Wilhelm, Joseph Stalin, and Adolph Hitler. It also reflects the reality of urban life in the sense that residents are often too busy to notice these sorts of shifts as they happen.

Picton’s enormous and unruly undertaking brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges’s 1946 short story “On Exactitude in Science,” in which the author writes of an empire where “the craft of cartography attained such perfection that the map of a single province covered the space of an entire city, and the map of the empire itself an entire province.” Borges envisions a quest for perfection that is a perverse act of replication, blurring the distinction between the real and the diagrammed. Picton also seems to be smitten with the idea of representation on such a massive scale. His 2004 installation Cracked Parking Lot Drawing #8 was an actual-size sculptural rendering of its subject. Created using rubber and beads and suspended with springs and pins, his to-scale interpretation of an entire, quotidian parking lot inhabited a large warehouse-turned-gallery, unfurling on the walls, floor, and ceiling as a multicolored fantasia. One can only wish him the opportunity to wrangle, say, all of Tokyo into a similar setting.