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Paula Scher, the first female principal of Pentagram and designer of identities for the Public Theater and Tiffany’s — not to mention hundreds of hit album covers — grew up surrounded by maps. Her father was an engineer with the US Geological Survey who specialized in photogrammetry (mapping from photographs). His job fostered in Scher what she calls her “obsession with organizing information in hierarchies.” Since the 1990s, in her free time, Scher has painted maps — huge, brilliantly colored geographies obsessively illustrated with bits of data. “I use the form of the map to express what, for lack of a better term, is abstract expressionist information,” Scher tells Hyperallergic.
Paula Scher: U.S.A., now on view at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, presents 10 of her newest cartographic paintings. In these vast, brilliantly colored maps of the 50 states, Scher uses letters and numbers a bit like the pointillists used dots. From afar, the painted text densely packed over the surface of each map creates a shimmering, speckled texture. Upon closer look, though, you see that each map illustrates a specific set of data about the United States and geography today. They visualize the insane networks of airline routes, median home prices, driving times and mileage, area codes, and time zones across the country. The paintings are examples of data visualization at its least practical but most artful and expressive. Who else could make lists of zip codes visually thrilling?
Looking at these cartographic paintings and trying to digest the mass of information they contain can make the viewer feel as tiny and insignificant as stargazing might. They’re about much more than data and geography — they’re about about the attempt to reconcile your subjective, emotionally-tinted perception of the world with what’s presented as fact; about the impossibility of understanding your place as an individual within vast, complex systems. They also lampoon contemporary information overload and offer a reminder about how data is almost always biased, run through some individual’s filter.
“Most people look at maps and think of them as literal truths. I was taught to look at them a different way,” Scher says. “People ask how accurate the data in these paintings is. I’m really sarcastic about it — I say, ‘It’s about as accurate as the entire New York Times. They have the same amount of proportionate mistakes and the same amount of what’s right.’”
Scher’s personal painting practice, which she took up “as a way to unwind on weekends,” has “nothing in common” with her corporate design work. “They’re complete opposites. That’s why I make these paintings — for balance,” she says. “As a young designer, everything I did went into the computer. I didn’t touch an art supply. I found I really missed working with my hands.” She also missed the open-endedness of a painter’s process. “As a designer, you’re answering specific questions,” she says. “When you’re functioning as a painter, you’re not — you’re asking them.”
Paula Scher: U.S.A. is on view at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery (505 W 24th Street, New York, NY 10011) until March 26.