The suite of 14 letterpress prints called L.A.: Tabulæ ad Astra (L.A.: Maps to the Stars), by Dirk Hagner, bears a resemblance to an incunabulum and yet, is printed on 21st century, spiral bound, sketch-book paper bearing a yellow-brown patina from the waters of the L.A. river. It claims to be a map to the “stars,” which usually means where celebrities live, but not here. The title page has a decorative frame, which was imported from Exsurge Domine, a papal bull, in which Pope Leo X responded to Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis. All of the following plates are stamped with tiny Latin phrases in a Gutenberg-like font, accompanied by indexical marks, Rorschach-like stains, indigo splats, and strange little 15th-century depictions of imaginary sea creatures. How does one make sense of all of these printed marginalia on the ubiquitous rectangle that appears on each page? Let’s take the process apart, in the way that these fragmentary images were printed: from the center outward.
All of the plates in L.A.: Tabulæ ad Astra start with a rectangular-shaped object in the center—the modernist grid. The grid is a birds-eye view of a landscape and is emblematic of the city’s infrastructure; it is symbolic mapping, but yet, it is an abstraction. Rosalind Krauss suggests “the grid functions to declare the modernity of modern art.” Here, it is a mash-up quote from the pages of art history. They appear like small sheets of graph paper in a wide range of faded colors from sepia to carbon-copy blue. Overlaying the grid (but placed around the margins) is another map: a collage cutout—in the form of mountain ranges—from the famous Thomas Guide of Los Angeles and Orange Counties. At once, we have a flat view of the “city of roads” and then a silhouette of the famous mountain ranges that surround the LA basin. The centerpiece of each Tabula anchors the modernist grid while alluding to a visual representation of Los Angeles.
Printed on the grids are all kinds of indexical marks. Long lines in different colors crisscross like an Etch-a-Sketch across the plates. A hefty orange sponge-like mark careens across Tabula 14. Delicate navy blue and rust-colored swirl like the inked wind marks from the mouths of Dürer’s putti (who do appear in the corners of Tabula 10 as the Santa Ana winds). A wide swath of a black brush stroke has several delicate red inked lines printed on it—like mustaches, hair, or eyebrows. White and blue splotches of paint bloom with faint halos around them. Many of these hand-induced remnants look accidental but then are recouped in these Tabulæ. Collectively, they point to the one who designed, engraved, and executed this (from the title page: iuentor, caelavit et excudit) but are also potent signifiers of the handmade in our digital age, and they float like a collective dream above the city of Los Angeles.
Surrounding the grids and gestural marks in these Tabulæ, are letterpress prints of the “rational” tools of the cartographer. Various images of compasses, slide rulers, and protractors are depicted in thin red and blue lines and are placed on the grid and in the margins, in homage to the exactitude of measurements. These hand-held instruments from the Middle Ages and Renaissance were used to obsessively chart courses across oceans using the only reference point available: the stars. If measurement is a compulsive gesture, another is nomination. We have named storms, stars, and sicknesses in the vain attempt to somehow make them more conceivable to our ideas of things. Likewise, Hagner—in the margins around the grid—named within the uncharted territory invisible but dangerous microbes: H1N1 Flu virus and E. Coli O157:H7 bacteria. He named Los Angeles: Terra Viarum (land of roads), and Forum Somniorum (market of dreams). He described city life as: Homo Homini Lupus (man is wolf to man) and Comidite Omnia (consume everything). Above the grids, he printed, Post Nubila Phoebus (after clouds, the sun). In the surrounding margins, he printed little QR codes that you can scan into your smartphone and arrive at the English phrase of the Latin—a digital translator. But it is also a transport to another world with (dark, filmic) contemporary descriptions of Los Angeles in a modern font; they sound like movie titles. By now, we have arrived at the far margins of the maps. We are in the “sea of monsters.” Stunning images of water dragons and the like—taken from books of the 15th century and on— appear in extravagant detail. They are little economies of pen and ink depicting creatures from our imaginations: she-devil mermaids, walruses with waterspouts, and Nessies of the deep. Such territories are only tamed through these incredible depictions of wonder, but are ciphers of the unknown. Here, at the outer edges, we are Where the Wild Things Are.
But where do these maps lead us? Where are the stars? They are the luminous spheres of books. Like the spin of the hand on vinyl, this is the spin of the graphic image on paper. Hagner sampled from many kinds of books: sketchbooks, 15th and 16th-century books, papal bulls, and books on maps. He also sampled from the printing process itself: scrap paper, first pulls, as well as cuts and blotches on and around the printing surfaces. These images are remixed by hand into the corporeal manifestations of the printed and pressed image from our cultural lexicons, resonating with our collective (visual) unconscious. As Master Printer Hagner riffs on L.A.
– Karin Lanzoni
1 Rosalind Krauss, ‘Grids’, in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, Mass., and London 1985, p.1