Google Maps offers many benefits over its crinkly paper predecessors, one being the simple fact that you never have to wrestle with an app to get it folded back up properly when you’re done using it. But buried just beneath the surfaces of those old physical maps are ample reserves of beauty and meaning, and by slicing, folding, and rearranging them into new forms, Shannon Rankin unlocks both.
Rankin was born in California but grew up in Vermont, and she says a series of early cross-country trips were formative to her work today. “The views from the airplane window are what initially sparked my interest in the macro and micro quality of the landscape,” she explains. She first made use of maps as an art student nearly 15 years ago, when she was coping with the loss of a close friend. In those early works, Rankin recalls, she used maps that her grandfather had given her as a child, employing them as “a metaphor for searching and understanding.”
Since then, the Maine-based artist has worked with many materials, but she’s returned to maps again and again. The pieces seen here come from two different collections, Map Series and Anatomy Series. In the former, Rankin transforms maps into compelling geometric patterns and architectural collages; in the latter, she repurposes cartographic elements to represent parts of the human body, showing a network of roads as a complex mesh of synapses, for example.
Still, Rankin thinks there’s more to uncover. “I have yet to tire of the inherent beauty and potential meaning that emerges from working with them,” she explains. “Maps are subjective. Every map is an interpretation. We bring our own personal meaning when we view them. They can reference the physical and psychological simultaneously. They elicit our memories and become a metaphor of life and personal cosmologies.”
In other words, maps can bridge the macro and micro concerns of our own lives, linking personal voyages to the greater world in which they transpire. And while the documents themselves may be authoritative, our readings of them are always prone to error. That human element–that ability to misinterpret or misread a map–is part of what makes Rankin’s reworkings so potent. They’re a reminder, in an age when our navigation is increasingly administered by a cool synthesized voice on a turn-by-turn basis, that maps can still be open to interpretation.