A map is at once abstract and representational. It’s abstract because it doesn’t look like anything that exists in the external world — as say, a portrait, does a human face. It’s representational because it renders actual relationships in the external world — like distances, heights, and direction. So the issue of a map’s intrinsic beauty aside — and some of the cartographic items in “Crossing Boundaries: Art//Maps” are very beautiful indeed — maps have the last laugh on art theory. The debate that consumed the art world for much of the middle of the 20th century, whether contemporary art had to be abstract to be modern: Mapmakers got the last laugh. Is it either or? Nope, both and.
An alternate title for “Crossing Boundaries,” which runs through April 20 at the Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library, could be “Flanking Boundaries.” A work explicitly made for cartographic purposes is paired with a work explicitly made for artistic purposes. The latter might be inspired by a map or chart, resemble a map or chart, or bear some other conceptual or visual relation to one. What’s amusing about this is that often the maps are more aesthetically pleasing than the works of art are.
The show consists of five parts: Order Out of Chaos (which describes what both mapmakers and artists do — where they differ is in how they do it), Projections & Distortions, Coastlines and Waterways (we’re getting away from form to content), Urban Life, Borders & Conflicts.
Some of the pairings are very nicely done. Naoe Suzuki”s “Water, Is Taught by Thirst (BLUE), Greater Boston” renders local waterways as a delicate tracery; in fact, she traced the delineations from topographical maps. It’s like a reverse image of an 1892 map of the Charles that shows sources of pollution. The city of Boston’s Engineering Department drew it. Whether intentional or not, the map’s being a blueprint does some chiming of its own, blue being the color of water.
Bruce Myren’s photographic triptych “N 40° 01’ 11.38” W 124° 02’ 48.59” Shelter Cove, California” connects with a set of geographical illustrations from Joseph F. W. Des Barres’s magnificent 18th-century volume “The Atlantic Neptune” because what we see shows a very specific where. With Myren, the acting executive director of the Photographic Resource Center, it’s a bit of West Coast beach. With Des Barres, it’s several portions of Nova Scotia headland.
Myren printed his triptych on aluminum, which enhances the work’s wonderful crispness. As it happens, Carly Glovinski put ink and acrylic on folded aluminum flashing for her “#lakewinnie.” It looks like nothing so much as a relief map of Lake Winnipesaukee (the folds making it look crumpled, a nice bit of verisimilitude). Or is it a sort of landscape painting? “Crossing Boundaries” is nothing if not a crumpling of categories. Nor does the crumpling stop there. Abelardo Morell’s splendidly arresting photograph “Map in Sink” manages to be both startling (what a strange idea — and thus visually irresistible — putting a map beneath a faucet) and practical. If you are going to do it, you have to make that large piece of paper fit into the sink, and you do it by . . . crumpling.
CROSSING BOUNDARIES: ART//MAPS
At Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library, Copley Square, through April 20. 627-859-2387, www.leventhalmap.org