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Francesca Berrini

Surrealist Mapmaking

Part designer, part surrealist cartographer, Portland-based Francesca Berrini creates fantastical geographies from maps that have been cut apart and re-arranged. This comes as a more specific manifestation of what she’s known for: exploring strange combinations of found materials. But her works are not overtly popish, not purely found and presented, more thoroughly scrambled and recast. This is perhaps because Berrini arrives where she does as an artist via an unconventional course, at least as compared to other more ambitiously Warholian artists.

Berrini was trained not as a painter or draftswoman, but in the Furniture Design Program at the Rhode Island School of Design. She’s worked for many years as a professional metal fabricator and finisher. In this show, the artist translates these skills into compositions that evoke a kind of SIMS-like encounter with an imagined world, all the while giving the map-lover a new and wholly unexplored cartographic twist to savor.

Each work is compiled of hundreds of deckle-edged squares cut from atlases -- and the squares are never more than a couple centimeters by a couple centimeters -- laid out into new and convincing patterns and then sealed over. This process gives Berrini the freedom to make worlds -- a task which sounds infinitely fun to undertake. But it’s not all smiles and good times: the artist believes that humans leave sizable footprints in the real world and that our maps reveal that. “Since the start of my exploration into mapmaking,” says Berrini, “I have become increasingly fascinated by the intersection of manmade and natural forms made visible in maps.”

What’s more, these surrealist charts play with us. From afar, the illusion of a recognizable artifact -- a map -- tricks the viewer into a sense of familiarity. It is only upon closer inspection that the split words and seams between squares become visible, revealing the utterly strange realms one is taken into. Sometimes Berrini names the islands and peninsulas and mountain ranges, giving her newly configured maps life via things like the islands of Nostalgia or Regret, or the “Police State", carved out into a square region vaguely resembling Kansas. There’s “Past” (Indo-China, naturally, is located there), “Present”, and “Future”-- fractured words, nothing we’d recognize. Either from far away, enjoying the illusion of a “real” map through our telescopes or standing much closer with our magnifying glasses, the creations’ effect is one of simultaneous familiarity and foreign-ness.

The novelty of the geographies, not surprisingly, wears off after a handful pass before one’s eyes. There’s the sense that something’s going to lift-off and take us even further, but the effort seems to peter out into pattern and habit. One wonders, for instance, whether the texts that do appear -- “Nostalgia,” “Regret” or others, like “Theater of War” and “Forgotten" -- could have been pushed in any number of perhaps more creative directions. One feels they could have been made wilder, less suspiciously kitchy than say the idea of an Island called “Forgotten". Why does that seem so predictable? And what about maps bearing names for things further beyond the typical cache of geographic metaphors, what about mapping emotions we’re less able to articulate than something like the land of, say, “Chaos”?

These sorts of creative challenges are unmet and that takes some of the air out of Berrini’s work. It leaves them feeling a touch more clever and crafty than artistically engaging. Luckily, the show leads us to a second, albeit smaller, segment, one that refreshes us with an unexpected change of pace: a set of re-worked pages from school-books taking cutesy images and subverting them. There’s “Play Ball” showing a man with a snake instead of a bat or “Funny Baby", in which Berrini’s cut out a picture of an ape and put it in the baby stroller. With a more overt nod to pop art here, the Portland designer-cartographer delights us with these funny texts melded with even sillier images.

Of course the greatest mystery here remains the artist herself: none of this work, for instance, directly belies the artist’s furniture design background. One can only wonder, therefore, what comes next: chairs paper mached with surrealist maps? Couches covered over in new geographies? Tables surfaced by atlases?

“Francesca Berrini: New Work" at Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art Gallery. Runs through Jan 25th. Tuesday - Friday, 10:30 - 5:30, Saturday, 11:00 - 5:30.