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Maps to creativity: Just follow

July 15, 2005|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Five years ago, Josh Dorman bought some old topographical maps at a used bookstore and started to draw and paint on them. "I tilt these flattened lands into the frontal plane and then I seek routes and valleys back into space," he writes. "I'm hoping for vertigo."

And what delicious destabilization he achieves. In his entrancing work at George Billis Gallery, Dorman takes documents intended as definitive records of particular places and invests them with ambiguity, multiplicity, memory and fantasy.

"Lake Erie, Of Course" is typically absorbing. The foundation is a government survey map (issued in 1915, reprinted in 1945) of the area where Pennsylvania and New York meet and jointly border Lake Erie. The lake takes a slice off the top left corner of the map, its waters indicated by long, fine, wavering stripes of blue. Dorman takes linear patterns like these, denoting water or, elsewhere, changes in elevation, and uses them as the starting point to render images naturalistically, with dimensionality.

For instance, the lake's meandering shoreline doubles as the sloping ground supporting a whimsical, multicolored tower with keyhole windows. A railroad track that bisects the map just south of the lake becomes a tilted road for a parade of kooky bicycles and a bed on wheels.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 03, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Brandt photographs -- An "Around the Galleries" art review in the July 15 Calendar section described prints issued by the estate of the late British photographer Bill Brandt as carbon pigment prints. They are archival pigment prints.

Dorman, who lives in Brooklyn, revels in the dislocation (pun absolutely intended) that comes from reading a map's flat lines as both aerially imposed patterns and the scaffold of a fleshed-out landscape. Every mode of representation is also a type of abstraction, Dorman lightheartedly reminds us. And if every mark on the paper is abstract, what need is there for following rules of propriety, gravity, logic?

The maps begin with the known and, thanks to the momentum of free association, become destinations unknowable. In the most compelling pieces, Dorman leaves much of the map exposed beneath and between painted and drawn areas. The interplay between different treatments of space is delightfully fluid. In a few pieces, especially the larger ones mounted on canvas, painting takes over and the formal tension goes slack. The map underneath seems suffocated, its use as a foundation more gratuitous than generative.

Thankfully, Dorman maintains a balance worthy of the high wire most of the time. While he clearly loves the elegance of the obsolete maps, his nostalgia for their yellowed pages is spiked by irreverent wit and an occasional whiff of social commentary. He indulges in teasing wordplay, sometimes obscuring parts of place names to spell new words. Overlaid color whittles down the label for St. Armand to "arm," which is exactly what sprouts nearby, with a finger pointing downward. Another work is titled "DonQuix," after its Rorschach-like silhouette of a mounted man, born of the map's own contour lines.

Verbal and visual double-entendres abound. Wriggling concentric elevation lines double as wood-grain pattern. A dollop of white turns a river traveling down a map page into rapids delivering a speck of a kayak into a painted lake.

At least that's one way to read the image. Dorman loosens the maps' symbology -- he literally throws away the key -- so that they can be read in multiple contradictory ways. He skews scale, extracting and extrapolating from a map's given forms. Each work evokes multiple places, times and tales. Each one oscillates -- amusingly, poignantly -- between document and dream.

George Billis Gallery, 2716 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, (310) 838-3685,, through July 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


A recycling center for memories

A collection -- as opposed to an accretion -- implies some consciousness in the ordering of gathered material. All of us accumulate memories, impressions and mementos in the course of experience, but few transform those accumulations into something with shape, purpose or external appeal. "Collected Recordings," a pleasant group show at d.e.n. contemporary art, is loosely themed on this enterprise.

Marc Dombrosky picks up discarded scraps of paper and embroiders directly over the markings on them, whether math calculations or casual jottings. He calls the project "Overwrite." Instead of canceling out the letters or signs, the stitches re-articulate them, endowing them with texture and a new intentionality. It's an earnest act of retrieval, taking what others have finished with and attending to it with the time and care associated with things of value.

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