Essay | Overview

Maps are Shannon Rankin’s raw material, her metaphor, her inspiration. She has cut nautical charts into strips and layered them into intricate filigrees; she has crunched and glued geological surveys into paper representations of tectonic plates; she has twisted astronomical diagrams into Mobius strips. She is a virtuoso of pattern, transforming the patterns revealed in maps—contours of mountains, snaking of rivers, constellations of stars, the imposed geometry of city streets—into elegant, disturbing symmetries.

Maps have captured Rankin’s imagination since she was a child and became the designated navigator on family road trips from their home in central California to camp and hike in Yosemite. After she moved East, she flew back and forth across the country to visit family. From 30,000 feet, she saw the continent condensed to a map; she saw in its shapes and lines patterns of affection. For Rankin, maps mark time as well as place, the infinite time of the universe, slow geological time and fleeting human time: the deep, incremental shifts of tectonic plates and the track of an interstate skimming the surface of the continent.

In her recent work at the Roswell Artist in Residence Program in New Mexico Rankin has found new ways to make visible the tension between the clarity of maps and the mysterious randomness of real places. In Earth Embroideries Rankin works from satellite pictures of Antarctica, embroidering striations of pack ice and glacial furrows in black or white thread. The stark, fragile miniatures reduce miles of continent to a small square of paper and hundreds of automatically generated photographs into a few painstaking images. In the Compression series she draws in pencil over arctic nautical charts she has cut up and pieced together, imposing a delicate narrative over a sea of ice. In Compression’s dark counterpart, Plate, Rankin has crumpled tiny squares of ocean maps, overlapped them, glued them together and coated them with opaque ink and graphite, slowly obliterating the information on the maps, replacing it with accretions that echo the texture of the land.

In Unearthed Rankin has cut up and reassembled geological maps of southeast New Mexico and southwest Texas and drawn on them with ink and pigmented graphite, inferring deposits of minerals, human artifacts, ancient sediment, and the Southwest’s red earth and immense landscape . The irregular outlines of the pieces suggest that they are political boundaries, maps of states, but really they are states of mind, layers of subtle information.

Part of the delight of Rankin’s work comes in deciphering the maps, and in the Grid series she plays with the transformation of practical information into private gesture. She has made cyanotypes—developed, literally, blue patterns, on light-sensitive paper; for the red companion pieces, she carefully cut out the red lines of roads from maps. Streets and avenues: where the roads came from is a mystery, and so is where they’re going.

Rankin has always invented her own terrain. She maps landscapes of imagination, juxtapositions of time and place, experience and information transformed and  reorganized into elegant and precise and surprising patterns. They are maps of her heart and her mind; they are surprising allegories of human navigation.

Deborah Weisgall has written about the arts for many national publications, including The Atlantic, Fortune, Esquire, and the New Yorker; she has written often for the New York Times. She is also the author of two novels: Still Point and The World Before Her, and a memoir, A Joyful Noise: Claiming the Songs of my Fathers.

Shannon Rankin