Art

Abstracting Maps to Question Our Relationships to Territory

In her large-scale drawings on sheets of vellum, the late artist Wopo Holup rendered geographic features with little or no contextual information, forcing viewers to reimagine how they envision landscapes.

Wopo Holup, “Continental Divide Canada (Jasper National Park)” (2015), ebony pencil, acrylic, aluminum, and Japanese colored leaf on Denril vellum (image courtesy Richard Alden Peterson)

BOULDER, Colorado — “No man ever steps into the same river twice.” The aphorism, attributed to Heraclitus, acknowledges the temporal quality of the river as an agent that facilitates the movement of commerce and people. The posthumous exhibition Wopo Holup: Endless Places, Present, at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, focuses exclusively on Holup’s abstract cartography drawings on hanging scrolls of vellum from the last 15 years. Isolating actual landscapes such as a river or continental divide, many of which cross national borders, she creates a new perspective in the tradition of symbolic topographies. If rivers and mountain passes historically have determined routes of exchange and cultural transformation, what happens when a map erases cities or other markers?

A graphite and gold-leaf line travels like a crack across many hanging scrolls of Denril vellum, swerving in unpredictable ways from the upper to lower edge of its support. The body of the line grows thick in places or branches like varicose veins. Upon one panel in the series, the graphite expands to consume the entire surface of the scroll. This represents the end of the nearly 1,500-mile route of the Colorado River at the Gulf of California. If not for the title, “The Colorado River II” (2013), you may never guess what the image represents because, in Holup’s version, the river is presented in segments, stacked side-by-side. It is a startling interruption of a topographic experience.

Wopo Holup “The Colorado River II” (2013), graphite and gold leaf on Denril vellum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The scope of the actual Colorado River, which travels through seven US and two Mexican states, is grand. But Holup’s translation of the river into a two-dimensional surface divides and flattens its presentation, abstracting it and rendering it illegible. It is not clear the direction it should be read or what it means to segment and format a river like pages of a book. Holup only rendered the water itself, detaching it from the fabric of urban spaces, topography, or local geography. This treatment extends to drawings of a continental divide or a coastline in a limited color palette, leaving the cloudy white vellum to consume most of the surrounding landscape.

Wopo Holup, “Jicarilla Apache Nation Reservation (New Mexico)/ Rio Grande National Forest (Colorado)” (2016, detail), ebony pencil and Japanese colored leaf on Denril vellum (image courtesy Richard Alden Peterson)

The spatial emptiness of Holup’s works in this exhibition recalls Alain Corbin’s phrase, the “territory of the void.” In his 1994 account of the changing perception of the seaside in Western culture, The Lure of the Sea, Corbin acknowledged the environments created through a colonized vision that remapped what already existed. Holup recalibrates this linear logic, scrubbing the land of its human marks and traces of culture. In that act, she tests our ability to comprehend a space in the absence of a static understanding of place.

Natural boundaries relate to the expansive concept of travel. In turn, ‘travel’ can denote movement, effort, aesthetic experiences, the bridging of separations, as noted by Christian Kravagna in his essay “When Routes Entered Culture.” Historically, the word ‘route’ described paths through territories that were otherwise impassible due to war or topography. Holup’s deconstructed topographic events articulate how actual human attempts to divide and own a mountain range or river are more of an abstraction than her illustrations.

Wopo Holup, (left) “East River” (2012) and (right) “Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound” (2013), installation view at Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (image courtesy Richard Alden Peterson)

The impressive 14-scroll piece “Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound” (2013) spins the orientation of the bay and sound to lunge laterally across the hanging scrolls like a dock resting on its piers. The glimmering aluminum leaf bay, edged in amber and vermillion, accentuates the inlets that spread like frost on a window pane. The vellum has a propensity to curl along its edges, serving as a reminder that each scroll is both independent and part of a composite work. Unlike the river drawings nearby, the Chesapeake Bay is sufficiently iconic to be recognized before the title claims it.

Holup’s works defy the readability of a landscape in a conventional, Eurocentric understanding, inserting her into an ongoing discussion of place-painting in art history. James Clifford’s seminal book Routes (1997) addresses the shifting focus from territory and ethnicity to exchange and contact, a transformation he summarizes with the phrase: “from roots to routes.” Richard Vinograd called paintings of topographical sites “landscapes of property” and Mary Louise Pratt looked at historical “contact zones” to understand power relations. Borders, are unstable and renegotiated based on diasporic movement, trade, and colonialism. Meanwhile, Holup’s borderless yet fragmented maps defy local and macro perspectives, including national borders themselves. Her works challenge us to imagine familiar landscapes anew.

Wopo Holup, “Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound” (2013), ebony pencil, acrylic and aluminum leaf on Denril vellum (image courtesy Richard Alden Peterson)

Wopo Holup: Endless Places, Present is on view at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (1750 13th Street, Boulder, Colorado) through May 28.

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