Discovering a Visual Shorthand: The Making of The Cartographer’s Dilemma

Discovering a Visual Shorthand: The Making of The Cartographer’s Dilemma

continued from part 1

“Cartographers use an illustrative short-hand to describe geographical features of the real world. This short-hand form of communication is designed to allow the viewer to have an easy baring on the contours and layout of the area depicted on the cartographer’s map. Exaggerated color palettes, lines of various weight and solid fields of color all act as simplified yet concise forms of communication informing the map viewer of the geography depicted. Instead of focusing on the actual details of the full terrain, the user of the map can rely solely on the map to find her way around the area.
“Spoken and written language serves as a way to describe the real world as well. Words are used as a concise method to describe all the vast facets and features of the world and the ways in which we interact with and within it.
“However, are words also just another form of short-hand, simplifying or exaggerating how we see the real word? A culture’s vocabulary has such a huge impact on how it’s members regard the world in which they live. Could it be that the more complex and sophisticated our lexicon becomes, the more removed we are from simply seeing the real world?”

– as described on


The ideas and dilemmas philosophy introduced me to were the perfect concepts for me to explore through my art. Creating art wasn’t about making a thing, it was about exploring an idea. Visual art in particular become a new voice through which I could explore the world. During the process of building The Cartographer’s Dilemma (TCD), the individual elements became metaphors of the different aspects of the theme I was tackling. With regard to the completed piece, the more refined the artwork was aesthetically, the clearer the question posed by the artwork’s concept became.

This is a very personal connection for me to have with the work; a connection that I know might not resonate with other viewers. But that doesn’t mean a connection isn’t being made even if it doesn’t rhyme with my own. Once an author is finished writing her book, she simply becomes another reader of that completed material. Her opinion is no more and no less important than any other reader’s. This is why I’m hesitant to explain the concepts behind my work. I don’t want my interpretation of the artwork to be canonized as the explanation.

That has been my position from the moment I decided to apply myself as an artist. Then, someone slowly convinced me to examine that philosophy, make sure I was consistent in my reasoning. When I finally realized the impact of her perspective, I also realized that the idea of Suboken being a single person or artist was no longer valid. Together, Calista and I each carry aspects to the artwork of Suboken. Yet, calling ourselves Suboken is just too weird to commit to. The more appropriate way to refer to what this experience means to us is by calling our endeavors The Suboken Project, for which I am currently the featured artist.

The perspective Calista’s insight offered me? Our ideas should be shared if we seek to grow from them. Making my artwork accessible to a larger audience speaks to this realization. If what I create isn’t intended to be seen and appreciated by others, then how can I define myself as a producing artist? If creating art is my way of exploring questions, how could I ever expect an objective answer if I’m the only person participating in the conversation? And, how can that conversation have potent value if the people participating don’t know what the artwork is talking about?

What I didn’t recognize until this past year was that presenting a work of art in front of an audience, then treating that work like a cypher, doesn’t allow my ideas to grow. This in turn prevents me from growing both as an artist and as a human being. How can I respect a conceptual piece of artwork I’ve created if I don’t allow that conceptual theme to be challenged by other voices? The only thing I risk loosing is a narrow point of view, and who would elect to be stuck with a narrow point of view if given the choice? Sure, comfort goes a long way, but I suspect that curious child we once knew within ourselves still hungers to learn more, and to explore. I know my inner child is still hungry to ask questions. Just count how many questions (albeit rhetorical) I just asked in these last two paragraphs!

Cartographer's Construction 02

colorization and effects filter applied to augment the sculpture.

Exploring the world is what The Cartographer’s Dilemma means to me. Wrapped inside that want for exploration, TCD warns me about the trappings of how I come to perceive the world. Beyond focusing on the usual suspects, the big five sensory organs, TCD also posits the question with regard to the use of language, both spoken and written. Does language shape my mind’s perception of the world just as varying shades of colored light does? Words with great specificity are intended to clarify an understanding of the world, but I’m not confident that words don’t serve as limiting filters as well, blocking out features that could help provide me an inclusive understanding of the world.

To test this question, I use TCD as an attempt to communicate without the possible trappings of lexicons and rules of grammar. For me, the sculpture acts as a visual Koan, attempting to snap the viewer out of any dependance on a reasoned, language based perception of the world, offering a perspective that is more intuitive and hopefully insightful.

“Okay smart guy, how does a cartographer fit into all of this?”

Remember that documentary I mentioned earlier, The Philosophy of The Matrix? There’s a brief section in that documentary that attempts to identify a stand-out term quoted by a main character in the first Matrix film, “…welcome to the desert of the real”. The documentary claims that the term comes from the book, Simulacra and Simulation written by postmodern philosopher, Jean Baudrillard. In this book, Baudrillard uses a fable by Jorge Luis Borges that describes an empire where cartographers have created a map so perfect that it shares a direct, one to one relationship with the geography it is drawn to depict. In Baudrillard’s analogous use of this fable, he postulates that in our postmodern condition, our perception of reality is more of a construct in our mind rather than an unobstructed observation of the real world. As related to the Borges fable, in the eyes of the citizens of the empire, it is the cartographer’s map that has taken primacy over the real world it was modeled after. And after a long period of time, the empire is unaware that the real world has rotted away. The map has become a simulation of the reality that no longer exists.

Whether or not this is Baudrillard’s intended interpretation on his book is certainly a worthwhile debate. However, this notion on how our minds are somehow inhibited from experiencing reality due to the depiction of reality through forms of illustration, be it a map, blueprint, text book, etc. is fascinating to me. In particular, the detail of describing reality as a decayed form underneath the map was a visual cue I wanted to explore.

Remember how the masking tape sculptures I used to make had collected dust and were unraveling? In my art classes there were periodic conversations about which materials were archival and which weren’t. For a young artist, it’s tempting to grab any and all found shapes, forms and materials to produce a unique piece of artwork. But we were warned that trying to sell such work to a collector could be extremely difficult due to the instability of the materials and processes.

Unless, the decaying of the work was a part of experiencing the work.

Paper Tape Construction

Paper Tape Construction

Eager to explore the Borges fable through the alleged filter of Baudrillard’s philosophy, I bought an assortment of different types of masking tape. After a couple days, I had created a medium sized relief sculpture out of the sticky tape dowels, adhesive-side out. Now I needed something to resemble the cartographer’s map. I snapped a series of digital images of the sculpture and started playing around with the files in Photoshop. It was when I started colorizing the images that an experiment came to mind. What if I printed a colorized version onto a transparent sheet of printing paper, then stuck in onto the masking tape dowels?

Paper Tape Construction

Paper Tape Construction

In two days, the first artistic study on The Cartographer’s Dilemma was sitting on my desk. The only thing I needed to do was wait and see how it would eventually fall apart. The idea was that the transparency mounted on the front would preserve what was the sculpture, but the tape dowels would unravel and collect dust over a period of time. It would be a living sculpture, something that challenged the viewer to experience on a daily basis. The next step was to make another one, only bigger.

Yet, my teacher’s advice about archival materials kept jumping to the front of my mind. Deep down I knew no one would buy this sculpture that was designed to decay away. Not from an unknown artist, to be sure.

Even before the dust and unraveling, the look of the piece was compelling to me. So I redesigned the sculpture to be made not from masking tape, but, wait for it… SCULPEY!

Cartographer's Dilemma Sample 03

Cartographer’s Dilemma Detail

Yes, that polymer clay material that I never tire of.

The Sculpey allowed me to explore new color combinations, a feature the masking tape was extremely limited in. Once baked, the Sculpey would hold its shape and wouldn’t collect dust. It could be mounted to the back of the frame in a far more secure manner with bolts, industrial adhesives, and smaller dowels. Sculpey would allow for more intricate details and imprinted patters. And best of all, the Sculpey would not be susceptible to being instantly crushed should something accidentally get placed on top of it. Like a text book or drawing pad.

Untitled Dilemma Study 01

Untitled Dilemma Study

It’s taken seven years and five different versions for me to refine the process and look of the final TCD sculptures. The second to last version took six months to construct and was the largest one I’ve created, 48” x 26” x 5”. The final and most refined version took Calista and me three months and is just slightly smaller in its dimensions.

Cartographer's Dilemma Sample 02

Cartographer’s Dilemma Detail

Confident that I’ve conquered the TCD, this fall I created an all new sculpture for what has now become a new series for The Suboken Project, A Series of Dilemmas. The new sculpture is entitled, The Architect’s Dilemma (TAD), and rather than featuring a motif centered around map making, it uses an illustrative shorthand reminiscent to an architect’s building plans or blueprints.

Architect's Dilemma Sample 07

The Architect’s Dilemma Detail

The Architect’s Dilemma also marks a new and exciting chapter for The Suboken Project. The experience has grown to include other people. I’m excited to share this topic more specifically in an upcoming post.

Three more Dilemma variations are currently being designed, one of which is named The Philosopher’s Dilemma. I’m proud to present both The Cartographer’s Dilemma and The Architect’s Dilemma in the current exhibit at The Palm Desert Community Gallery. Planned for the night of the artist reception will be the inclusion of the smaller artist study (prototype version) of The Philosopher’s Dilemma.

Whew… How did Abel Floris’s question turn into such a long post?

Architect's Dilemma Sample 11

Getting The Architect’s Dilemma ready for its Monday night debut.
– photograph by Mari Hinojosa