Julie Mehretu

by William J. Simmons

“That Intermediate Space, That Indeterminate Space”*
Julie Mehretu’s characteristically nuanced and lyrical understanding of her role as an artist in the 21st century is as pragmatic and grounded as it is hopeful:

“One of the big issues for me as I continue making paintings is a belief or an insistence that this continues to be necessary, considering what is taking place in the world and how fundamentally messed up it is. Given the devastating realities of life, what keeps pulling me back into the studio to keep painting? There’s a place in them that emerges from an effort to invent a way to deal with this moment. The new paintings come from this necessary investigative space. It’s not a justification; I feel that painting is necessary, essential, and crucial. The same is true for anyone making art.”

Seeing the world in flames, especially in a post-9/11 context, has caused us to question, as has been the case throughout history, the accountability of the visual and performing arts in the face of unthinkable trauma. Perhaps what differentiates this moment, at least in the context of the United States, is a newfound understanding of the particularities of these traumas—that, in a patriarchal, capitalist, and heterosexist society, suffering is not dealt out equally across lines of gender, sexuality, race, and class. Moreover, as we see the damage wrought by American foreign policy across the globe, it becomes increasingly clear that the connectivity allegedly offered by social media actually erases historical and geopolitical disparities. Grand narratives of displacement and despotism, after having dominated the social consciousness for centuries, are finally beginning to break down into their constituent parts—the lives of autonomous persons and their communities.

Mehretu has always maintained art’s relevance in our rapidly changing times. With her contribution to Flaunt’s [Ctrl-C]+[Ctrl-V] issue, she has signaled an important painterly shift in exactly this vein between the individual and the collective, and, simultaneously, the direct materiality of art and its conceptual aspirations. Mehretu’s celebrated career in painting, drawing, printmaking, and visual scholarship has proven her to be one of the world’s most rigorous and passionately engaged artists. Among other international accolades, she was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and is also widely represented in museums across the world. Her detailed, but nevertheless expressive, evocations (never illustrations or pure representations) of world architecture and urban planning have enacted international discussions about the benefits and limitations inherent in the mindset of “globalism.” Mehretu has considered these quasi-documentary pursuits to be in tandem with her reworking of post-war abstraction, which, like the rhetoric of globalism, sought to establish a universal visual language while forsaking the details of lived experience.

Conversely, for Mehretu her combination of multiple artistic modes creates a “a collision of various elements wherein something else could occur,” which has given her audience a chance to consider “being a part of the world in a different way.” Indeed, the mandate to position one’s own creative output within larger conversations—something to which Mehretu has always been committed—has become increasingly pressing of late.

While some artists have turned toward hyper-academic insularity and others have created increasingly literal representational interventions, Mehretu harnesses abstraction as the vehicle for her untiring returns to discourses that are often left unexamined. This may surprise some, for the question becomes, how can one create change without being able to physically see it? Being in a room with her evocative paintings however, quickly reveals the value of and reason for her commitment. As she explains, “With abstraction, there’s an important distance from representation whose importance lies in its opacity. Opacity is radical and a site of potential. I want to accept all of the contradictions the paintings set up that are inherent to their existence and the problem of making paintings.” Her stylistic redirection of late will surely continue to produce heretofore-unconsidered questions in the form of aesthetic and sociopolitical inquiries alike.

After completing the 2012 Mogamma series, created in the wake of the Arab Spring, Mehretu turned away from color and began to consider relatively calmer forms, as if a subtle emollient had been applied to her canvases. There is a sense that Mehretu is attempting to bring her marks inward, toward an impossible depth precluded by two-dimensional limitations, as if these wild shapes seek a moment of respite. According to Mehretu, this whisper of stillness results from artistic and circumstantial reconsiderations,

“These paintings come from a place of new possibilities, rather than trying to deal with a specific time and geography. They are unfolding a different kind of language that comes from a place of retreat, and I need to talk about a third space, or the emergence of another presence.” Her previous rootedness in named regions and monuments has pivoted toward a more dispersed sense of introspection without sacrificing her relationship to historical and geographic details. As Mehretu suggests, “The formal logic of my new paintings alludes to another type of existence. The paintings are just being in that other space, rather than needing some construct of where or how that takes place.” Mehretu shows us the moment of utterance; nothing has been fully articulated, but something is on the tip of the tongue.

Though this sounds like a specifically artistic conversation, Mehretu was moved to propose these changes to her practice by intensely tangible events:

“Since 2011, think about the intensity and hopefulness of what took place on the world stage. The most visible dictator of my entire life, President Hosni Mubarak, stepped down because so many people were in the streets. He peacefully left, and you saw this change that I’ve never seen before. There was a sense of potency in this collective action, but there was an awareness of its tendency to devour itself from the inside, to be coopted.”

It is here that we can view the true power of Mehretu’s brushstrokes and swaths of ink. They are not marks of indecision, despite their wonderfully feverish and unresolved nature. Instead, Mehretu utilizes art-making as a lens with which we can magnify (but maybe not fully grasp for the time being) an unconsidered realm that flourishes with the dark matter that lives between individuals and groups, paint and ideas, the canvas and activism. Equally driven by autobiography, intellectual pursuits, and artistic skill, Mehretu has paused for a moment in order to consider the multiplicity of options for moving forward with fearlessness and accountability to each other:

“I was born in the midst of the utopianist gestures on the continent of Africa. Most of the world had recently become independent states instead of colonies, there was a very different perception of and sense of possibility of what a place could be, but that completely fell apart in the dystopian ’80s. The failure of this optimism composed most of my life, but with the Arab/African Spring, it felt that there were new possibilities. When I talk about retreat, I mean in that context—a moment of rethinking language, of rethinking collective action and governance. I’m looking to step back in order to take the parts apart and put them together.”

* Russeth, A. “All That’s Solid Explodes into Air: An Interview with Julie Mehretu,” Blouinartinfo.com, June 2010.

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