A la carte: Paula Scher’s American maps chart more than just territory
By day, Paula Scher is a partner at the top New York design firm Pentagram, where she not only created the logo for Citibank, but also works on numerous projects for clients that include the Metropolitan Opera, Microsoft and Bloomberg. On the side, she has turned her aptitude for design into an artistic endeavour of a different sort. Scher uses her spare time to create paintings of maps. Not simply abstract works, but pieces full of information.
Scher first became interested in cartography at a young age, when her father first showed her full colour US Geological Survey aerial photography maps of areas like the Rocky Mountains. ‘I thought these maps were art,’ says Scher. ‘Later I began to play with the language of them.’
Her latest series is on display at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York until 26 March, in an exhibition titled ‘USA’. The large scale cartographic paintings – some measuring seven feet tall – double as complex infographics that explore a plethora of United-States-related topics.
In one corner of the gallery, a mural traces the winding curves that make up the US highway system in red and blue. Another presents the country’s geography and climate, showing networks mountain ranges, rivers, and weather streams in a chaotic, colorful jumble on the map. Scher also created paintings depicting median home prices, driving times and mileage, as well as counties and zip codes.
To select a topic for a painting, Scher gravitated towards her interests. ‘I am obsessed by zip codes,’ she explains. ‘No one has yet given me a real definition of what constitutes one.’
The upcoming elections also played a role in the series. ‘I think about location and population and wealth against the way Americans think and make their choices, and that is especially resonant for me in this election year, when I am obsessed with politics,’ she says.
Though they might appear related, Scher looks at her art practice as a separate entity from her design work. ‘My paintings are paintings,’ she says. ‘I accomplish them as a painter, not a designer.’