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Going the distance

Printmaker looks for poetry among maps and measurements we use to understand our place in the landscape

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It can be hard to wrap one's head around vast distances without taking a few shortcuts here and there.

Useful technologies like cartography and linear perspective bring things down to a more manageable scale, impose order and help us understand our position in the world. The geometry underlying both, imagined arrays of criss-crossing parallel lines, also help us contemplate even wider possibilities: alongside art, math is one of the few frameworks we have for understanding the infinite.

Jeanette Johns bridges the two in her own investigations of limitless space. The Winnipegger's work examines how the ordered systems we use to measure and illustrate distance square up against the real world, which remains messy and massive despite our best efforts to circumscribe it. Whether crafting handmade metre sticks or creating wallpaper from the blue pinstripe patterns atlases use to illustrate the ocean, Johns looks for a kind of poetry in the shorthands and conventions that help us to make sense of space.

Looking for Length, her current solo show at Aceartinc., finds her grappling with the horizon itself, the limit of our perception and the point where pristine parallels eventually seem to converge.

Though the work spans traditional printmaking, drawing, animation and video, the show is anchored by a series of prints that combine digital photography and silkscreen. In Considered Views, Johns begins with serene aerial landscapes shot from airplane windows, flat expanses of land, sea, and sky that melt into far-off horizons. Onto these she prints precise, sometimes barely perceptible overlays, gently imposing imaginary grids and meridians, tracing the parallel boundaries of roads and fields to their unseen conclusions.

While elegant in their simplicity and undeniably lovely, the prints forgo a sense of awe or wonder in favour of detached composure. Other works in the show suggest a creeping anxiety, however, a sense of something troubled just beneath the sweeping vistas and cold Cartesian grids.

Mercadian Study of the Infinite North, a modular panorama of hand-coloured etchings, carves the undifferentiated arctic landscape and sky into radiant, crystalline shards, hinting at the threatening potential of boundless space. In a number of drawings and prints, tidy perspectival grids give way to fields of mottled watercolour clouds. Individually, these have a meditative quality, but they take on a manic intensity when a year's worth of the hand-drawn images, each stamped with the day's date, fly by at breakneck speed. Tomorrow Is Another Year, an animated sequence of the 365 drawings, suggests an obsessive bent to Johns's methodical explorations.

A final video, Multi-Stage Distance Test, is a more frantic treatment still and Looking for Length's real outlier. The camera is trained outside a train-car window as we yo-yo in and out of a darkened tunnel in time with a series of intrusive prerecorded beeps. Based on a timed relay race used to assess fitness levels by pushing runners to the point of exhaustion, the video's pace accelerates over the course of 20 minutes as time between beeps grows shorter. The effect is nerve-racking and disorienting in equal measure, a pointed reminder that for all our mapping and measuring, there will always be distances we can't quite cross or even comprehend.


Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2014 C14

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