Imaginary Cartography

A map is a drawn representation of space, making sense of and setting limits to a given area. The earth’s terrain is charted through its natural barriers, carved and reshaped by mountains and rivers, as well as its man-made artificial borders used to enforce territory. Similarly, the human body can also be thought of as a map when we describe neural ‘pathways’ in the brain and use ‘body mapping’ in psychology to work through lived experiences, or in neuroscience as a form of conscious, corrective physical therapy. In her recent exhibition “Imaginary Cartography”, Marthe Aponte explores these ever-shifting boundaries between nature and the body, while embracing time as a marker to map change throughout her career.

The twenty paintings in “Imaginary Cartography” span over fifty years, before Lancaster-based Marthe Aponte even considered herself an artist. She began her professional art career in 2010 but made art throughout her life while in France, Venezuela, and the United States. Aponte’s early work was primarily acrylic on canvas or wood—pairing bright colors with craft materials, such as mesh and beads, or building up scenes using tiny dots, akin to Pointillism. These dot paintings are a cousin to the picoté style that Aponte is most known for, an intricate 13th-century French folk art tradition of meticulously piercing holes in paper with a needle and awl. Yet where there are several dot paintings in the show at the Palmdale Playhouse, there are no picoté artworks.

Marthe Aponte, Woman in the Forest, n.d., Ink on paper. Photo by Edwin Vasquez.

One of the oldest pieces on view is “Woman in the Forest” (n.d.), inspired by a drawing she made in Venezuela in the 1970s. A female figure lies on the ground beneath a grove of trees, and a couple of trunks blend into the solid black of the figure’s lower body and the side of her head. Other trees are given life with delicate lines and empty white space. Throughout her career, the human form and nature have been Aponte’s two primary subjects as she believes people are not separate from nature.  This painting, and the more recent “Mapping the Body” (2021), a horizontal red piece featuring another figure bonded with trees, interpret this literally.

Installation View of Mapping the Body, 2021 (top). Image Courtesy of Palmdale Playhouse

In “Mapping the Universe” (2021), Aponte portrays a humanoid figure with no identifying features other than a turtle on its face and arms and legs dismembered at the joints. This figure resides in an abstracted intersection on top of parallel vertical lines like roads, and on its torso and legs are tubular protrusions resembling side streets, all connected by a wavy dotted line that ‘drives’ our eye around the composition. While the canvas edges may bear physically defined borders, the cropped appendages imply continuation beyond those boundaries: too long to be contained. Growing up, the artist described feeling as if her body continued past her limbs, infinitely. “Sometimes when we pay attention,” Aponte said when I interviewed her in early March, “we connect with a dimension that is beyond space…and then, all of a sudden, you feel like you are in touch [with the natural world].”

Marthe Aponte, Mapping the Universe, 2021, Acrylic on canvas. Photo by Edwin Vasquez.

During our conversation, Aponte admitted she was at a crossroads with her career. In part, she revisited past work to view it in a new light, as many of these paintings have never been shown or have languished in her garage since their last appearance. Yet a longer discussion revealed the artist’s hyperconsciousness of her changing body. Recent hospital visits and weak spells have made plain the reality of aging, and although she spent much of last year exhibiting her recent work across Southern California, she questioned her productivity and relevance in the art world. These days, she worries whether she has the strength to do picoté again, or if she does, that the quality will not be like before she fell ill.

Marthe Aponte, Mapping a Maze.  Photo by Edwin Vasquez.

Modern society demands forward progression, discovery, and newness of artists. To pause or return to a previous point is viewed as a waste of time. “Imaginary Cartography” pushes back against that idea and instead forges emotional pathways into Aponte’s autobiographical past for viewers to traverse. Her metaphorical maps of the human form and nature are not about exchange, acquisition, or possession in the material sense of map making, but rather they chart the psychological states of one’s body to reflect upon our lived experiences.

Marthe Aponte, Sacred Flowers, n.d., Acrylic on canvas. Image Courtesy of Palmdale Playhouse.

After a similar conversation with her friend, CSUN art professor Betty Brown, Aponte has continued to create dot paintings like the ones on view in this exhibition. While painting is relatively faster than picoté, she still cherishes the repetitive work of mark-making.  By returning to her roots, Aponte is embracing a tried and tested familiar path in her practice to move forward. Considering life’s natural cycles, where every end heralds a new beginning,  “Imaginary Cartography” accurately documents the conclusion of one journey while widening the path for the next.

Marthe Aponte
Imaginary Cartography
Feburary 29 – March 28, 2024
Palmdale Playhouse
38334 10th St. East
Palmdale, CA 93550