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JULIE MEHRETU

May 1 - 29, 2004 at the Gallery at REDCAT, Downtown

by Jody Zellen




“Excerpt (Suprematist Evasion),”
2003, ink and acrylic
on canvas, 32 x 54”.










“Excerpt (Riot),”
2003, ink and acrylic
on canvas, 32 x 54”.










“Excerpt (Battle Track),”
2003, ink and acrylic
on canvas, 32 x 54”.










“Excerpt (Molotov Cocktail),”
2003, ink and acrylic
on canvas, 32 x 54”.
The twelve paintings in Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting, curated by Douglas Fogle and originated at the Walker Art Center in 2003, are densely layered works that describe a futuristic environment capturing the sense of our time in history. Mehretu, who was born in Ethiopia in 1970 and educated in Senegal as well as at the Rhode Island School of Design, is interested in "the multifaceted layers of place, space and time that impact the formation of personal and community identity."

Mehretu’s paintings have a visual layering to them that requires excavation. The eye first takes in their all-over dynamism and gestural intensity, then begin to focus on the fine details and specificity of line as well as references to architecture and appropriated symbology. In the large painting (95 x 119 inches) Looking Back to a Bright New Future, one is first taken by the biomorphic forms in muted colors that spot the canvas. These colored shapes exist between the white ground and the black linear elements that move endlessly over the surface of the work. Your eye is led into the composition and moves through it by following the denser black curvilinear lines. As in all of Mehretu’s work, this painting is intricately layered. You can discover architectural details, arches, stairways and roadways. These dizzying works are reminiscent of Piranesi’s Imaginary Prison etchings, which describe impossible architectural spaces. Mehretu has remarked that she draws from the past and imagines the future. Her spaces capture the sense of our time in history. They reference the networked environment of cyberspace as well as the Baroque. She uses gestures and stylistic elements from Albrecht Dürer, Japanese and Chinese calligraphy, as well as modern graffiti and contemporary comics.

The eight mid-sized works in Drawing into Painting entitled Excerpt can be interpreted as maps of contemporary culture and as commentaries on some aspect of today’s grow ing Global network. Mehretu’s parentheticals in Excerpt--(Citadel), (Paradigm), (Suprematist Evasion), (Molotov Cocktail), (Battle Track), (Riot), (Regiment), and (Suspension)--reference violence and chaos inherent in society. Her paintings do not attempt to make sense of the world, but rather map out connections amongst and between different fictional entities.

Looking closely at Excerpt (Riot) reveals cartoon-like explosions with billowing clouds of smoke interspersed with rectilinear forms that suggest a receding space, all of which hovers above a nondescript environment. How one enters into and moves around Mehretu’s work is a result of the combination of her conceptual and formal strategies. In Excerpt (Suprematist Evasion) brightly colored rectilinear shapes dart in from the sides of the composition, obscuring much of the line work. The painting feels as if it was imagined from above, and we as viewers are the ones able to look down on the turbulence and chaos attacking the city below.

Mehretu’s paintings have an affinity with the Suprematist works of Kasimir Malevich and with the Italian Futurists, who employed an all-over dynamism to communicate their excitement with the speed and chaos of the city. Mehretu’s works draw from those traditions yet her image of the urban environment depicts a post modern city. Her paintings are built from the juxtaposition of different styles of marking, each with their own character, identity and history. These dense compilations of marks create overlaps and transparencies. The resulting layered compositions exude an energy that is consistent with contemporary society. She depicts a world that is in constant motion, a world that draws from the past as it looks toward the future.