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Map of the Human Art

New exhibit explores the artistic side of geography.

Julie Jankowski became obsessed with maps-as-art about four years ago, seeing them as an extension of her passion for landscapes. "That’s how I learned to sling paint, so to speak," she said, standing before a large canvas featuring a satellite image of illuminated cities recreated with oil paint. "This view satisfies many of my paranoias, securities and insecurities, my desire for more interesting subject matters than the literal."

Jankowski, who lives in Baltimore, is one of four artists that use maps and other cartographic images whose work is currently on display in "You Are Here: Maps Redefined by Mid-Atlantic Contemporary Artists" at the Ellipse Arts Center (4350 North Fairfax Drive) through Saturday, Oct. 13.

Working off free downloadable images, Jankowski enjoys painting places to which she’s never traveled — with some artistic license. "Although I live in the United States, I’ve never been in orbit," she said.

Her wall-sized painting of Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in New Jersey captures the tug-of-war between landscape, nature and technology Jankowski finds fascinating.

"The idea of juxtaposing the wetland with sports complex," she said. "The amount of infrastructure we have to create in order to transport people to this spectacle is incredible."

The image of the stadium is a map itself: Walkways spiral to the upper decks, roads lead through stadium parking lots. The stadium stands for all to see, but the image is Jankowski’s interpretation of the structure.

That’s what Cynthia Connolly, director of the Ellipse Art Center and curator of the event, wants to convey more than anything: That every map involves some artistic scrutiny. "Every map is an interpretation. Even though the points on the map are real, the interpretation is the mapmaker who decides what points are shown. That’s actually art," she said.

Jankowski said that artistic license is taken every time a map or satellite image is relayed through mass media.

"At this point, this view has become so familiar; abstract, but so familiar. We have such power to photograph things from satellites, and we see it so commonly — in our newspapers, in our television series … we see arrows pointing to the aerial map of Iraq, and here are the weapons of mass destruction. They’re saying that this is the case, but really you don’t know what you’re looking at necessarily."

CONNOLLY CONCEIVED of the gallery exhibit after visiting an open studio tour in Baltimore, one in which she was given a map and she drove around town visiting different artists.

Like Jankowski, both Renee van der Stelt and Dawn Gavin live in Baltimore; a fourth artist, Karey Kessler, is from Winston-Salem, NC. Kessler draws map-like images on paper in an abstract manner. Gavin, originally from Glasgow, uses deconstructed maps to assemble large collages and installations. Van der Stelt uses three-dimensional sculptural drawings to map the global movements of wind and water.

"Originally, it was going to be three artists. I had seen some art from Renee, but it hadn’t seen anything with maps," said Connolly. "Then one day Dawn e-mailed me and said, ‘Have you ever seen Renee’s work? She totally does map work.’"

The artists combine to examine maps-as-art through several filters: From Jankowski’s more literal translations of images — from aerial photos to the invisible map created by cell phone tower networks — to Gavin’s work that explores what she calls "a fallacy of orientation" between the map and what it represents.

Connolly knows how important a map’s representation can be; although it’s run by Arlington County Cultural Affairs, she said that the Ellipsis Art Center isn’t on Arlington County maps.

"Isn’t it funny?" Connolly said.

"It’s my job to make it on the map."