Graphic Designer Paula Scher Maps an Atlas of the World

The exhibition “Paula Scher: The Maps”—on view at New York’s Maya Stendhal Gallery—presents twelve painstakingly detailed map paintings.

In the early 1990s, renowned graphic designer Paula Scher began painting small, opinionated maps—colorful depictions of continents and regions, covered from top to bottom by a scrawl of words. Within a few years, the maps grew larger and more elaborate. “I began painting these things sort of in a silly way,” Scher, a partner at the Pentagram design firm, said in a recent conversation. “And I think at one point I realized they would be amazing big. And I wondered if I could even do it. If I could actually paint these things on such a grand scale, what would happen?”

“Paula Scher: The Maps”—on view at New York’s Maya Stendhal Gallery until December 17—is the answer to that question. The exhibition presents twelve painstakingly detailed map paintings—of the United States, South America, Africa, Japan, and the world—spanning five to twelve feet in width and teeming with the neatly lettered names of countries, cities, and landmarks. The results are remarkable. South America becomes a bulbous mass of countries, dominated by the juddering red heart of Brazil. Manhattan is an island mobbed by street numbers, pushing the names of its famous landmarks into the surrounding rivers. Even Scher’s map of the world—the earliest and least information-clogged painting in the exhibition—fairly undulates with names and figures.

All of this detail is the result of work that Scher describes as “incredibly laborious and obsessive”—yet the paintings as a whole don’t feel like the product of tortured obsession; rather, they exude a sort of whimsical, brassy ingenuity. And, unlike their predecessors, the maps in the exhibition eschew opinion in favor of a barrage of facts—or at least the appearance of fact. “They’re all wrong,” Scher says. “I mean, nothing’s in the right spot. I put in what I feel like. It’s my comment on information in general. We receive a lot of information all the time and mostly it’s lies or slight mistruths.”

Even so, the paintings throb with implication. As Scher explains, “The way the maps work is that they’re total abstractions, and yet they have all this meaning attached to them.” The map of Florida in 2000 jumps out with obvious political import; the state is labeled by county, and the surrounding black Gulf ripples with the corresponding presidential election results. Yet, Scher’s paintings are at their best when meaning remains tantalizingly elusive. Look at her grand, multicolored patchwork of the United States, reminiscent of the U.S. maps that span the inside cover of many elementary school textbooks. Up close the painting overwhelms the eye with detail, but step back and it’s the same handsome, lumbering, forthright America we all grew up with—laid open to inspection, hiding nothing, and yet fundamentally inscrutable. This ambiguity lies at the heart of Scher’s cluttered, precise, beautiful maps—and, unlike real maps, you seem to grow more lost the longer you look at them.

Categories: Arts + Culture, Design