Ellen Driscoll / Lost Cartography
The year’s doors open
like those of language,
toward the unknown.
Last night you told me: tomorrow
we shall have to think up signs,
sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan
on the double page
of day and paper.
Tomorrow, we shall have to invent,
the reality of this world.
– Octavio Paz, January First
I grew up on the banks of the Mystic, a seven-mile river that empties into Boston Harbor. Everything I thought about that river was myth, misunderstanding, or childish projection. The name conjures the otherworldly, as if in crossing the river, one might encounter magical beings. Turns out, it was just Somerville. The name is not mystical at all, deriving as it does from the native Algonquian word for “big river.” The area between the housing projects where I lived and its muddy banks was a fenced-off landfill. I once saw a rainbow end in its brownish marshes. We would sneak through gaps in the fence to collect discarded metal artifacts and then sketch the paths that led to our discoveries. At the end of the day our feet tracked industrial sludge all the way home. For me, nature consisted of that brackish water, the milkweed pods that opened to birth fairy wishes, the malformed cattails, and the clustered burrs adhering to my socks.
I was reminded of that landfill and river’s edge when I encountered Ellen Driscoll’s Soundings series. Sounding measures the depth of a body of water usually by dropping a weighted sounding line that plummets to the bottom. The emphatic brown-ness of these large-scale drawings threatens to overwhelm with suggestions of sludge and silt, a wet earth sloughing off its waste. Currents of ochre, puddled umber, and ghostly coffee-colored silhouettes swirl around one another in compositions that hover between solidity and dissolution. Her imagery includes haggard banners, skeins of ivy, skeletal billboards, abandoned loading docks, mischievous pigeons, conspiratorial crows, and what she calls the “volunteer” plants that spring up in the cracks of sidewalks and empty fields. These are the spaces where land meets water, culture meets nature, and ruin meets promise. Driscoll maps territories that are historical, cultural, biological, industrial, internal and external – hers is a topography of in-between-ness.
Driscoll draws with and from particular locales; in the case of Soundings, it is Red Hook, Brooklyn – a peninsula of red clay jutting into New York Bay. A modest spit of land, Red Hook has nonetheless had a complex history in colonial, industrial and post-industrial America.
For all of the metaphoric value of her process and images, there is also an evidential quality to the works: a specificity bordering on the descriptive power of photography. The silhouettes and ghostly traces she conjures with sumi and walnut inks are insistent and ephemeral. It is always somehow that bird, and that plant, and not some generic symbolic referent that haunt her images. The shadows and pale emanations of cascading vines are woven together like a slow waltz between absence and presence. Diagrams of wind currents swirl over the compromised waters, the weathered banners recall ships at sea while also suggesting that the party is over.
Driscoll jokes that as an artist she keeps factory hours; she punches in early in the morning and works all day. This is not surprising considering her prolific output. In addition to the Sounding series made in 2015, she also produced a suite of drawings in Siena Italy. The Siena drawings continue the sumi and walnut ink process, but this time it’s the medieval architecture of Northern Italy melding with the echoes of great Sienese painters such as Sassetta that inspired her work. The dark silhouettes of birds punctuate the drawing’s proscenium; they are tricksters, agents of change. They soar and flit with no concern for human boundaries, mocking our biological and self-imposed restraints. Patterns of plants, vines, and blotchy honeycombed structures reminiscent of ill-defined continents, are layered with details of sumptuous cloth, all hinting at lost narratives of trading routes and an ongoing exchange between nature and culture.
Several of Driscoll’s group of soft sculptures from 2014-15, are partially attached to wall and drape down to the floor, manifesting their own form of in-between-ness. Fashioned from felt, paper pulp, wax, cloth, plastic, and wood, these structures float between image and object, between the utilitarian and the symbolic. Flaccid remnants of cloth suggest both ancient maps and patterns for clothing. In Naiad, swaths of black cloth are printed with a photographic image of dead and tangled trees. The gray and entwined branches unfurl from the wall like an ominous banner then fall to the floor to transform into seamstress’s pattern for a shirt or jacket. Is the clothing an offering from the world of water nymphs? Should one accept such a gift from the world of myth, knowing that wearing it will radically change the trajectory of our lives?
The most ancient maps coincide with the earliest known alphabets, around 3,000 B.C. I don’t think it coincidental that these two forms of abstract communication were born of the same era – knowing where we are in relation to another place is the beginning of narrative.
Drifter, Pilgrim and Stilt, each in their own way feature what appears to be a city plan, street map, or topographical relief cut into cloth. But of what use are these maps? Without identifying language the patterns refute our ability to read them. How can we locate ourselves in relation to their mute pointing? Instead they droop down the wall to gather in folds upon the floor. Look closely at Stilt and you can see delicate felt cutouts in the shape of earth’s landmasses. Stained and hanging by a thread, the continents seem forlorn and out of scale with on another, as if rejected by Mercator himself.
In his one-paragraph story, On Exactitude in Science, Jorge Luis Borges, evokes an ancient civilization so obsessed with representational perfection that maps of the empire were made on a one-to-one scale, thereby covering the world with its measured facsimile. Over time, the map deteriorates from exposure to what Borges describes as the “Inclemencies of Sun and Winters,” and ends the story telling us that “Tattered ruins of that map” can be found inhabited by animals and beggars. Less a warming comfort and more a survivor of untold adventure, Driscoll’s Family Blanket was once her grandmother’s possession. It not only bears the marks of having been passed through the generations, Atlantic wind currents are burned into its fabric, transforming the pale creaminess of the material into a sail or a fragment from a long lost cartographer.
This essay originally appeared in Ellen Driscoll: Thicket, New Work 2014-2016.