The Oregonian 10/07

An Art of Beautiful Fissures

by Victoria Blake

Matthew Picton has come a long way since his last solo show in Portland, in 2005.  At the time, he was obsessed with the smallest, most inconsequential of things – the cracks in the sidewalk, for example.  his work had a labor intensive “wow” factor but not much else.

Now, his obsession with cracks has develpoed into a series of delicately beautiful sculptures that have as much weight as pizazz.

His new exhibit, “City Sculptures” at Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery, looks down on the mess of the human metropolis, showing the fissure lines of our economic, political and ethnic boundaries through a series of three-dimensional wall-hanging “maps” of several cities around the world, inccluding Amsterdam, Madrid and Portland.  Picton is still obsessed with cracks, but the cracks are of a meatier, more intellectual sort.

Take, for instance, Picton’s map of Baghdad.  It has five layers, each held in place relative to the others by sewing pins.  The bottom layer, a blue line indicating the Tigris river, provides the backbone of the pattern.  Above the river floats the earliest roads, then the roads of Baghdad 1944, followed by the roads of today.  Imagine coloured spaghetti arranged three-dimensionally, one layer atop the other.  Now imagine that each layer indicates a period of time in the city’s past.  The result is a visually interesting juxtaposition of then and now, a combination art object and social document.

Picton developes the idea by color coding the levels of his Baghdad map to match the city’s disparate ethnic sections.  The Sunni section is olive; the Shiite section is dark green.  the two sections don’t mix.  Purple indicates the Christian areas of twon, and the Americans-  we hace a section of our own- are indicated by a bright and shining green.  By following the lines, and by looking both up and down through the layers of time, the ethnic divisions in the city become clear, and the mess of the Iraq war perhaps becomes more understandable.

Picton’s materials are deceptively simple: Dura-Lar plastic, paint, pins and a white rectangular canvas.  The Dura-Lar is hand cut – a doily of lines float in space, casting delicate shadows against one another.  The pins lend an erie feel to the pieces, as if the maps were insects affixed in a taxidermist’s box. The process of assembling each piece, as well as the research involved, must take months.

The variety of results Picton achieves with such simple materials is impressive.  The map of the Ganges Delta shows the tributary system of the great river, done in blue and red.  the effect is distinctly organic, like a diagram of the human vascular system. Besides the cities already mentioned, “City Sculptures” includes maps of Stockholm, st. Petersberg, Caracas and others.  Finding a particular neighborhood is as much fun as searching for home on Google Earth.

While some of the pieces hit the mark, others divert from the intellectual and social muscle that makes the Baghdad map so interesting.  Finding home in Portland is entertaining, but it’s not much more than that.  Similarly, the map of Stockholm shines in silver, but the lines don’t seem to mean anything past geography.

In his artist statement, Picton, a juror’s prize winner in the 2006 Oregon Biennial writes that he interested by both traditional cartography and by the “organism of the city.”  His maps, he writes, trace the “social, political, economic and topographic factors” that have shaped the cities he’s chosen.

that ambitious scope is covered in some of the works but on the whole Picton hasn’t gone far enough with his idea.  Yet he clearly can.  Picton’s method of layering multiple maps on top of each other, tracing the lines of the city’s developments, is inventive, even ingenious.  Above all, Picton has the talent, intelligence and dedication to push himself, That map of Baghdad shows us that  he can.

Maybe part of the problem with this show are the cities Picton has chosen – and the cities he’s missed.  In comparison to Baghdad, Stockholme and Portland seem like fluff.  But waht about the racial divisions in New York? What about religion in Jerusalem? What about economics in Hong Kong or imperialism in Lagos?

Picton has always been obsessed with the idea of cracks.  Now he must find the courage to show us the cracks that matter.