CHASE LANGFORD: CARTOGRAPHIC RIGOR IN ART
By Peter Frank
Maps define a distinct kind of retinal-conceptual art, one vast in both its formal potential and its practical applications. We in the modern world know it by the complexes of signs and signals that constitute maps; bound by a specific function, maps also provide aesthetic pleasure while imparting geographic data.
The tones and languages comprising Chase Langford’s painting – a rich variety evincing his efforts he calls a “geographic expressionism” – comprise a notably broad syllabus of forms. Langford is the graphic master of all these tones and terms, blending them into a distinctive method that has yielded several approaches to abstract painting, each one more elaborate and yet more viable than the last. The growth in Langford’s pictorial sophistication deepens the understanding of the cartographic approach to abstract painting.
Trained as a cartographer and employed as one for a quarter-century, he recognized himself as an artist through mapmaking. A mapmaker’s purpose is to describe the earmarks of a terrain so that it can be navigated in space and time; Langford’s purpose as an artist is to engage those earmarks so that their self-defined qualities stand out.
Langford brings forth the aesthetic components of cartography by mooting the practical components. He compares this to the tendency of West Coast Abstract Expressionists to formulate their expansive gestural works in response to the landscape around them. But such topographic sensitivity determines only part of Langford’s own modality, and it can be argued that his process of abstracting from perceived space is just the opposite of abstract landscape painters like Jack Jefferson or Edward Corbett. While they painted in direct response to apprehended space, Langford derives his imagery in response to a prior process of abstraction: the notational abstraction that maps involve, exercised on that space.
Langford eschews cartographic forms – silhouettes of land masses or political boundaries, street networks, or other literal quotations from given geographies. He began his work two decades ago with such devices – colorful canvases including finely rendered images of Japan, the Philippines, the grid of midtown Manhattan, and the like — but grew past this self-evident style to more broadly realized compositions. The progress towards the sinewy extrusions comprising recent and current works, Langford’s most distinctive and intimately reasoned, was somewhat longer. He experimented with various degrees of geometric ordering and simplification; with gestural patterning involving all-over tones and textures; with various degrees of granularity; with fractured cubist lines; and other abstract formats.
Langford has given many of his series names of specific places – “Malmö,” “Mulholland,” “Del Mar,” “Essex” – indicating that the paintings produced under these rubrics have some formal-contextual relationship to these sites – that is, to maps of such locations. If they do, they provide not the merest hint of alignment with such places. His intention is not to tease geographic identity out of coherent marks but to evoke sensuous, even spontaneous association through a rarefied process of abstraction derived from the conceptual abstraction at the core of mapmaking.
In its muscularity and self-assured choreography, Langford’s painting of the last several years at once brings his map-based abstract language to a new level of refinement and allows it to escape its cartographic association at will. The paintings invite but do not insist on a cartographic association; they stand, entirely on their own even as they cling, however quietly, to their origins in mapping. Langford now depends less on particular extant maps and more reliant on the act of inscription itself. He has carried over the inherent calligraphy of mapmaking into a whole other realm of expression. Chase Langford has left his maps behind, but not his mapping.
Peter Frank is a New York-born, Los Angeles-based art critic and curator. Associate Editor of Fabrik magazine and art critic for the Huffington Post, Editor of THEmagazine Los Angeles and Visions Art Quarterly, and art critic for LA Weekly, Village Voice and SoHo Weekly News. He has organized exhibitions for Documenta in Kassel, Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, and New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Senior Curator at Riverside Art Museum in California. He has written extensively for books and periodicals around the world. Past ICI curated exhibitions include: Artists’ Books USA co-curated with Martha Wilson (1978); Mapped Art: Charts, Routes, Regions (1981); Indiana Influence (1984); and Line and Image (1988).