by David M. Roth
Several years ago, Britton took the extraordinary step of moving the continent-shaped forms off their paper supports and into room-sized installations. The components, which sometimes fold over on themselves to resemble billowy clouds, hang from ceilings by string and fishing line. Facebook recently commissioned Britton to create one for its Menlo Park headquarters. And this fall, the San Francisco International Airport will install a large-scale laminated glass panel based on one of Britton’s 2-D designs. Neither work is open to the general public; however, Deluge, an installation similar to the one at Facebook, is on view for the duration of the Wendi Norris exhibition. Like its predecessors, it suggests unmoored landmasses anchored by loose tendrils of thread that, in this installation, come close to touching the floor. Britton sees it as “analogous to musical notation,” a comparison I resisted until I remembered some of the unconventional scores John Cage set before musicians.
My introduction to her came at a 2009 solo show at Johansson Projects in Oakland. The most memorable works were executed on large sheets of thick paper sliced to a point where they were structurally compromised, yet tough enough to be wall-hung and appended with all sorts of glued-down forms that, together, created the illusion that you were traversing vast distances. Curators typically categorize such practices as mapping, a designation that describes the look of Britton’s work but not necessarily her motivations. Where most contemporary map artists redraw borders (racial, political, social or sexual) to express a particular worldview, Britton does so to plumb her past. She calls her work “emotional landscapes.” They’re maps, but “they’re not maps of anything that exists outside of my imagination. They are a record of time spent “ordering and sifting” tragic events that befell her at an early age.
To probe whether and to what degree she thinks her art resonates beyond herself, I read Britton a 1979 quote from Kim Levin in which the critic called mapping “an emblem of Postmodernism.” “Mapping,” Britton responded, “is deeply connected to the anxiety of the moment and artists are deeply connected to that,” adding that her art, which conveys both “fragility” and “tension” reflects those anxieties. “My work isn’t about the craft and the labor,” she stresses. “I want there to be a transformation.” Indeed, when you look at Britton’s work, the illusion of being drawn into wide-open spaces is so compelling that it is impossible not to be transfixed by her craft. That involvement transforms what we see and feel. With its roads to everywhere and nowhere, Britton asks us to confront, as she puts it, the question of whether “things are coming together or shattering apart.” The answer, of course, depends on where you stand.