Maps are intrinsically appealing because they can be both utilitarian devices and objects of painstaking, beautiful detail. But “Art on the Map,” on view at the Chicago Cultural Center, isn’t merely about the distinguished history and craftsmanship of mapmaking. It’s an examination of the map as metaphor: for travel, for political, philosophical, and metaphysical boundaries, and for explorations into the world of self-discovery.

Curator Gregory G. Knight, director of visual arts for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, has assembled a fine balance of work that compellingly illustrates the influence, potency, and relevance of the subject matter. Like the works themselves, which represent a broad range of media and approaches, the artists who created them offer a sort of romp through the landscape of contemporary art. Included are pieces by modern masters (Claes Oldenburg and Christo), current superstars (Guillermo Kuitca), faded enfants terribles (Julian Schnabel), local favorites (William Wiley and Cameron Zebrun), and those who are virtually unknown in these parts.

In the latter category, a few stand out. Nancy Chunn’s canvases are closer than anything else in the show to the grand old traditions of classical cartography. They are lushly illustrated history lessons, graphically depicting the drives, conquests, growth, and development of the Chinese empire. Frontier Vacuum, a metal sculpture by Chicagoan Roger Machin, is a prairie schooner composed of found objects, including a sail that is a county map of Wyoming. It whimsically combines a pioneering spirit of adventure with the ingenuity and appreciation for craftsmanship that characterized the American west.

But perhaps most intriguing are the two installations specifically commissioned for the show. Seven Veils for Chicago, by Chicagoan Paul Coffey, is made from floor-to-ceiling lengths of deep blue nylon on which imaginary islands and their port cities are painted. Their diaphanous quality and their positioning–covering the east windows of the gallery that face Michigan Avenue and the lakefront–evoke an almost impossibly dreamy vision of the tropics superimposed on the urban streetscape.

Mneme XXIX: Tourism, by Carol Emmons, is a tour de force of tackiness, an installation of spectacularly silly and tasteless souvenirs (ash trays, snow globes, salt and pepper sets) dedicated to the romance of American road travel. Emmons exhibits the souvenirs in old valises converted into dioramas, as if they were objects in a shrine. As a counterpoint, she has chosen pithy, thoughtful quotations about travel and printed them on the Plexiglas fronts of each shadow box. Although the approach is ironic, it’s in no way derogatory. If anything, the stuff is displayed in an almost loving fashion–more like a reliquary than a chamber of horrors.

“Art on the Map” continues at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, through July 10. The center is open Monday through Thursday 10 to 7, Friday 10 to 6, Saturday 10 to 5, and Sunday noon to 5. Admission is free. Call 263-2100.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Chicago Dept. of Cultural Affairs, Dennis Cowley.