One of the most thoughtful and obsessive conceptual artists working on the West Coast today, Matthew Picton debuts a new body of work this month at Pulliam Deffenbaugh . The London-born artist, who now resides in Ashland, has a fascination with topography stretching back to his teens, when he went on long hikes in the Welsh countryside and Scottish Highlands. His first works as an artist were influenced by fellow British sculptors Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy, a lineage that carried through into the works for which he is now best known: intricate tracings and nubby rubber rectangles based on the cracked sidewalks, roadways and lakebeds of Southern and Eastern Oregon. More recently, Picton has put aside his transmutations of mute nature and plunged into the far trickier milieu of human civilization. The current works, meticulous Dura-Lar cutouts based on maps of the world's great cities, portray multiple layers of civic infrastructure: subway systems, railroad tracks, roadways and ports. Because Picton, an intuitive colorist, assigns each layer a different hue, each work has a unique chromatic appeal. Milan, 1832 overlays fuchsia atop blue-gray; Stockholm , red atop a delicious silver lamé.

Some of the works resonate politically. Baghdad shows the city as it appeared in 1943, then later under Saddam Hussein, and as it appears today with its splintered sectarian neighborhoods and color-coded zones of occupation. The artist insists the works are apolitical, and strictly speaking, he's right. Every bit as dispassionate and journalistic as his erstwhile transcriptions of natural decay, sculptures like Baghdad also raise the question of whether an artist can portray a place through time without editorializing.

Formally the works exult in layered three-dimensionality and shadowplay. Upon close inspection the lines reveal a jagged, hand-cut appearance incongruous in light of the works' overall fastidiousness. Whether these rough edges add a welcome human touch or an unwelcome lack of finish is an open question. Two other strains of work in the show—a red-and-blue study of the Brahmaputra Delta and a text-only piece based on an antique map of London—point to Picton's overarching paradox: He is a conceptual artist (and a deconstructionist at that), yet despite his increasingly Platonic inclinations, he never strays from the terra firma underlying even his most ethereal works.


Pulliam Deffenbaugh, 929 NW Flanders St., 228-6665. Closes Oct. 27.