Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 1, 2021
Christine Y. Kim and Rujeko Hockley Julie Mehretu Exh. cat. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Prestel, 2019. 320 pp.; 450 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9783791358741)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 3, 2019–September 7, 2020; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, October 24, 2020–January 31, 2021; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 25–August 8, 2021; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, October 16, 2021–March 6, 2022
Julie Mehretu, Hineni (E. 3:4), 2018, ink and acrylic on canvas, 96 × 120 in. (243.8 x 304.8 cm). Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, gift of George Economou, 2019 (artwork © Julie Mehretu; photograph by Tom Powel Imaging)

Five years in the making and developed in close collaboration with the artist by Christine Y. Kim (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and Rujeko Hockley (Whitney Museum of American Art), Julie Mehretu presents over two decades of the artist’s compelling work. The exhibition demonstrates how Mehretu’s practice, rooted in drawing, the global history of painting, and an evolving engagement with materials, surfaces, and spaces, achieves unprecedented monumentality without sacrificing the intimacy of mark making and imagery. Consistent with the novelty of Mehretu’s art, Kim and Hockley’s artistic organization of the accompanying catalog enriches the viewer’s engagement with the artwork and the artist herself.

The exhibition begins with the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Mehretu finished her MFA and began to establish herself as a painter. Exemplifying this period, Babel Unleashed and Untitled 2 (both 2001) are large paintings with angled and curved black, gray, and red lines bursting out of smaller black tangles, scattering shards, and white polygons over neutral canvas backgrounds. The lines resemble cartographic outlines and architectural drawings, but interspersed among the geometric structures in each painting are billowing cloud-like formations and flame-like lines reaching upward and outward, with dense patches of hatching and flowing black lines that reference more natural formations. Without one knowing anything about the artist’s mindset when she painted these, the paintings’ inescapable effect is explosive, as if normative structure and stability are thrown asunder. These are abstract works populated with lines and forms that do not quite resemble the visible world, yet Mehretu exploits the properties of her formal elements and layers her imagery to reference global conflict and the dispersion of distant refugee communities.

Apropos (1998) also sums up Mehretu’s early concerns: exaggerated but measured linear perspective joins flat planes of neutral colors to make an apparent corner in a three-dimensional space. As if drawn on a transparent wall in front of the illusionistic area, thin black lines and cartographic markings are deployed across the surface. Aptly titled, Apropos complies with Western traditions of painting that date from the Renaissance: linear perspective enables Mehretu to render three-dimensional reality on the two-dimensional surface. Even her map-like marks seem recognizable. However, they float on a transparent plane, perpendicular to the illusionistic corner, completely confounding our understanding of painted representational space. Mehretu’s familiar markings impose referential content suggestive of the leaked plans of military maneuvers and installations. Instead, they are invented forms, drawn with ink to explore the relationship of drawing to painting, yet the inference of military conflict is unmistakable.

Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa in 1970. To escape the violence of Ethiopia’s bloody civil war, at age seven she was airlifted to the United States with her siblings and mother, an American educator working for the US Air Force. Her father, a professor of economic geography at Addis Ababa University, had secured a position at Michigan State University, and the family reunited in East Lansing, where the artist grew up. Mehretu’s early interest in cartography was not directly inspired by her father’s geographic work but rather by her understanding of history, art history, and artistic practice as spaces layered with the movements of bodies and populations over time. According to Kim, Mehretu became interested in “tracking movements and positions of individuals and masses within and outside systems, and probing the possible relationships between mapping and visual abstraction” (56). The artist initially employed drawing to explore these relationships, noting in 2002, “I find myself more and more interested in the idea that drawing can be an activist gesture” (57).

The exhibition proceeds roughly chronologically, and Mehretu’s layered spaces expand in complexity and scale. Her previous schematic floor plans evolve into isometric architectural fragments including lines of arches and rectangular facades with windows. Stadia II (2004) intertwines layers of meticulous ink drawings with brightly colored circles, ovals, triangles, and other familiar shapes that seem to recede toward a single vanishing point just below the center. Measuring nine by twelve feet (2.7 by 3.7 meters), Stadia II compels the viewer to get close, move before it, and spend time if they want to grasp even a portion of everything that is going on. The title names the large, circular arenas built for public events, a tradition that dates back to the end of the Geometric period in ancient Greece. In modern times, stadia have been largely used for sporting events and concerts, sometimes eliciting fierce rivalry between fans of teams representing different regions or nations of the world.

Mehretu’s Stadia II immediately projects the excitement of flags flying and crowds gathering. Around the top float rectangular combinations of colored stripes that can be readily identified as the flags of the Czech Republic, Lebanon, and Poland. Less obvious, irregular horizontal bands of red and white appear in the top right and middle left that might be elements of the flag of the United States. Without the blue canton with fifty white stars in the upper left, these bands could alternatively be drawn from flags of several other countries. Especially curious is a vertically hanging flag near the center in the upper right quarter of the painting. Like the US flag, it has thirteen red and white stripes; and like the flag of Malaysia, where the blue canton would be it has a crescent and star (symbolic of Islam), but these figures are red, and the canton is transparent. Slightly below and to the left of this flag floats a Greek cross, and a bit lower, to the right, a Star of David. In fact, star formations associated with different national and state flags float independently throughout the composition, along with strings of triangular pendants, checkered patterns (like starting flags), and even curious combinations of marks that form corporate logos such as the CBS “eye” or the VW logo (in orange in the upper left). Yet the energetic profusion of imagery fails to completely subsume the artist’s intricate ink drawing underneath. The striking contrast between the tiny, delicate marks that move together inside the imagined arena and the explosion of bold and busy imagery above only heightens the sense of excitement.

What is the precise meaning of all of these associations? On the one hand, Mehretu employs pure abstraction in the tradition of the early European avant-garde. On the other, she is also inspired by specific events, situations, built environments, and even questions. This is how the artist conducts research and poses hypotheses through her painting practice. While her symbols and marks may be read as visual metaphors for masses of people who persist, despite their diminutive position relative to nation-states or global corporations, it is also in the nature of painting to present imagery to the viewer that opens to countless associations.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, smaller works on paper allow the audience to enter the intimate space of Mehretu’s mark making before experiencing the overwhelming scale of her more recent paintings. This reinforces the dual presence of intimacy and powerful enormity and complexity that characterizes much of Mehretu’s oeuvre. In a departure from her earlier, layered compositions privileging lines and marks, the newer works combine multiple processes and media to create evocative responses to national and global events. The paintings derive from the artist’s collection of media images: Mehretu digitally manipulated each, then layered digital and physical drawings over hand painting, airbrushing, and screenprinting. Each painting responds directly to a recent catastrophe. Inspired by the California wildfires, Hineni (E. 3:4) of 2018 is named after the Biblical passage in Exodus where Moses replies “Hineni” (Here I am) when God calls him from the burning bush. Mehretu’s eight-by­-ten-foot (2.4-by-3-meter) canvas presents an inferno, with jagged fragments and thick gestural marks rising from its glowing red and orange center. She chose the title to explore the contradictory meanings of a single elemental force: in Exodus fire conveys God’s message to Moses, which leads to freedom for his people; but in Northern California, the fire caused by environmental change and human inaction led to the destruction of large communities and innocent lives.

The catalog includes multiple high-resolution, close-up details of much of the artwork and uses selections that Mehretu chose from her media archive in place of section openers. This enables readers to explore her art and process even without visiting the exhibition. Wall texts in each gallery offer insight into her influences, but together with her media selections, the catalog essays clarify her profound connection to the world, realized through her painting practice. Mehretu’s art is personal and specific but also cross-cultural; it emerges from history and tradition but layers new media with found imagery and ideas into a kind of multidimensional space, one where everything is connected. It mirrors the virtual networks of contemporary life.

Mehretu’s midcareer survey has toured throughout a globally catastrophic year. As such, the messages embedded in the artist’s multilayered work acquire a new urgency. The artist has said that her paintings expose truth and critique social and political systems but that she also intends them to offer new possibilities, echoing the optimism of the early twentieth-century European modernist movements that her work frequently references. This exhibition not only presents the range of Mehretu’s artistic expression; it also offers viewers new ways to consider our world and new possibilities for responding to ever-changing experiences. As Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight concisely stated in his review of the exhibition at its first venue: “This show matters.”

Diana McClintock
Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, Kennesaw State University