We all look at maps to find out where we’re headed—today, they’re just digital maps on phones with high-definition technology. In a place like New York City, even the simplistic grid pattern becomes overwhelming at times. Looking at the grid on a piece of paper is a waste of time when a pulsing blue dot can lead someone straight to a coffee shop a few blocks away. Have we lost the charm of a map? Have we lost the importance of memory?
Barbara Macfarlane painted Midtown Rust in 2014 with a map in mind. The work is temporarily housed in The Children’s Museum of the Arts in the West Village of Manhattan. The piece is one of two in this series (the other being Pink Midtown, also made in 2014). The piece is simple: a thirty-two-block chunk right out of the grid in midtown. The blocks are not detailed, just swipes of mostly grey paint with a block here and there, colored by varying shades of a deep orangey-red. The piece is striking in simplicity and precision even though the blocks do not perfectly emulate the clean-cut rectangles that section off the streets of New York. This is one of Macfarlane’s characteristic techniques: she completes the broad strokes and bold lines of each piece entirely in one sitting. Typically the art resembles an urban area or a bird’s eye view of a river that runs through a city as in Paris, France.
Most artists begin their painting with a sketch to map out the piece. Macfarlane started this project by making her own paper. This process involves taking various scraps of paper, soaking them, and beating the mixture. Then adding starch and draining the water forms a new piece of paper by laying the pulp out flat and letting it dry. The foundation of the painting was then laid for the rest of the work to develop. Next, Macfarlane strung together her haphazardly handwritten street labels to resemble the grid.
A map with few details offers little help to a wanderer, but opens up the opportunity for a journey. While sitting in front of the painting, I was transported to each of the locations noted. Maybe the section of Midtown takes on a specific meaning for me since I lived there for a time, but I could place at least a few details on most of the streets. I knew where the Herald Towers stood tall over 34th Street, so small in the shadow of the Empire State Building on the opposite corner of the block. Walk just North on Sixth Avenue and you will pass storefronts teeming with costume jewelry and kitschy “New York” souvenirs. Eventually you reach Bryant Park around 40th Street. If you’re lucky it will be close to Christmas and the Ice Skating rink will serenade you with holiday music and shops ready to sell a cup of fresh hot chocolate.
Not one of those details shows up on the handcrafted paper or in the dollops of slate grey or rust. They sit like placeholders with little importance other than the fact that the streets come from one of the most popular cities in the world. Though the map is accurate and complete, the piece offers the viewer an open space to walk around. Maybe someone could discover something on a street that they have never seen before. Someone might even try to make a map from memory. Midtown Rust invites the reader to walk down Broadway from 52nd Street to 20th Street just to see what you will find.