While Julie Mehretu's dynamic, large-scale paintings may appear at first glance to be gestural and expressive, each work contains heavily mediated processes of digital intervention, layering, and erasure.Read More
In 2003, Mehretu presented Empirical Construction, Istanbul, at the Istanbul Biennale as a 'portrait of a city'. In lieu of a depiction of the historic city as a place the artist presented an abstract vortex of arching and angled lines packed with symbols and signifiers of the historic metropolis' past and present.
A product of overlaying, various imagery and documentation the city's architecture and topography the work is an early example of Mehretu's palimpsest collage approach to image-making.
Mehretu begins her paintings by collecting news photographs of public gatherings, protests, natural disasters, and other global events. Using a computer, she collages and manipulates the images beyond recognition before airbrushing them onto canvas in a process she refers to as 'melting'. From there, the images are overlaid with ink, acrylic paint, architectural drawings, and gestural marks.
Even when the original news images are obscured, Mehretu believes their distilled essence imbues the paintings with a level of deep resonance. This method of mediating images represents, she says, how 'history is made: one layer on top of another, erasing itself, consuming itself, inventing something else from the same thing.'
The results of these processes vary greatly from work to work. The intersecting lines and smudges of black pigment in Cairo (2013), for example, resemble a Chinese landscape painting, while the bold washes of colour and scrawls on the surface of Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson (2016) evoke a kinetic crowd of figures.
The titles of Mehrutu's artworks suggest protest and revolution are particular areas of interest to the artist, particularly given her family's migration in the 1970s.
Exhibited as part of the 2019 Venice Biennale May You Live In Interesting Times, Julie Mehretu's series 'Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts)' (2011–2012) was inspired by the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
Citing opacity and abstraction as the core of her practice, Mehretu told Ocula Magazine that she considers abstraction as a place 'where one can invent other images or possibilities. It's not about delineating or defining some concrete political perspective, or some directive on how to understand things, or even a historical narrative. It's about the collision of all those things—the uncertainty and murmurings of all that.' Mehretu argues for the right of artists—especially 'Black artists or artists of colour, who are expected to explain who they are and to tell the world their perspectives'—to work in an opaque way that denies reductive categorisation.
Mehretu has, more recently, largely dropped rigorous architectural drawings from her repertoire, and turned toward a pictorial blurriness that represents the cognitive confusion of our times. Emerging from this shift, her solo exhibition about the space of half an hour at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York (2020) featured works that were made during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The works presented in about the space of half an hour were also inspired by the notion of the 'calm before the storm', as Mehretu described to Ocula Magazine in a 2020 conversation. In the photogravure and aquatint work Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Third Seal (R 6:5) (2020), areas of filmy light and shadow behind layers of black scrawls create the illusion of a blurred photograph just out of sight.