A World on Display

by Zachary Johnson

As the seventies became the eighties, world-building expanded from the spheres of fantasy and sci-fi into the new field of video games. At the same time, it spilled over into fine art, as Jerry Gretzinger took up world-building in his artworks. For thirty-two years what started as an 8 ½” x 11” map-like panel grew into a world of over 2,900 interconnected images. Like J. R. R. Tolkien and George Lucas before him, Gretzinger’s motivation to create is sustained by an excitement over how his world will develop. Self-imposed rules and a system of chance turn Jerry’s Map, his body of work, into a story whose unknown ending he is always working towards. In looking at it, we can share in the pleasure of entering a new world and get lost in his unending handiwork.

Jerry Gretzinger Jerry's Map, installation view UICA

Jerry’s Map rewards sustained attention and repeat visits. Stand back, and you can marvel at the overall size and shape of Gretzinger’s world, its topography, waterways, and cities. Move close, and you can inspect the intricate details of each of its carefully rendered panels. While I was easily captivated by its level of detail, I also marveled at its visual variety. Over his three decades working on the map, Gretzinger’s style has not remained stagnant. Instead, he has used the map as a framework in which he’s experimented with new techniques over the years. While the oldest panels are the most traditionally cartographic, over time he’s introduced more and more collage and abstraction into the works. Currently he says his favorite panels to make are the ones at the edges of the map: abstract splices of brightly colored food packages, magazine pages, and other found materials. And while we can enjoy Gretzinger’s work as an artwork, we can also experience it as a story.

Jerry Gretzinger Jerry's Map UICA

The evolution of Jerry’s Map is guided by a modified deck of 114 playing cards. Each one instructs Gretzinger how to make a change to his world. Through it, he redoes panels, adds canals, roads, and even voids — white spaces that engulf and destroy populations. A second card, the defense wall, creates a fortification to contain the void. His system of rules and chance is reminiscent of games, but also of literature, as the tension between his world’s creation and destruction yields a plot that drives the story forward. It’s not surprising that the void was originally suggested by a writer friend his. 

Jerry Gretzinger N19:W18 Jerry's Map
Artists have based their work on sets of rules before. The most famous is perhaps Sol LeWitt, who, beginning in the late 1960s, began issuing rules to others on how to create his artworks. In this, he found a way to totally remove himself from the creation of his work. Gretzinger balances the excitement of rules and chance with the warmth of the human hand. “My hand puts the paint on the paper,” he states, “and then I step back and go, ‘Wow, look at that. As though I was not the perpetrator.’” Gretzinger’s exhibition at the UICA, up until February 28th, offers viewers the chance to experience Jerry’s Map at a particular stage in its history. We can see its hilltops, islands, and cities, some in a state of mid-destruction, others untouched by the void. After the exhibition comes down, its history will resume, and it will continue to grow and change in unpredictable ways. Gretzinger is determined to see those changes through. Commenting on the future of the map, he stated, “I’m good for another twenty years.”

Jerry’s Map is currently on display at the UICA through February 28.

Posts by Zachary Johnson are also available via instagram and tumblr under the name Vis Ed.

UICA 2 Fulton St West
Tu–Sa   12–9 PM
Su 12–6 PM

Admission: $5 Adults, Children under 5 and UICA Members Free

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