New York

Julie Mehretu

The Project

A map of Julie Mehretu's career thus far would have the scattered, centripetal look of her paintings. Imagine a wide swath of markings and arrows, emblems of an itinerary that has taken the artist from Addis Ababa and Dakar to Kalamazoo, Providence, Houston, and Harlem. Near the center of the map, clusters of color-coded symbols would represent a six-year run of exhibitions and reviews, quickly growing denser and soon interspersed with little plumes of flame and smoke—combustion! By the time the Whitney released its very long list of artists for the 2002 Biennial last November, her absence, along with that of her quasi counterpart, Benjamin Edwards, seemed glaring enough to imply a curatorial gambit, a deliberate evasion of obvious choices.

The paking of Mehretu and Edwards is already a commonplace. They've appeared in some of the same group shows; they both make flagrantly intricate AutoCAD-ish abstractions; they're fond of the same theoretical texts (e.g., Guy Debord). And they're friends, having met in graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design. So far, in fact, their affinities have tended to overshadow some salient differences. Edwards, with his perspectival conflations of franchise architecture, distills a landscape as American as Starbucks and AOL. Mehretu's work, on the other hand, is far more hermetic and diffuse, not limited to any local geography. She's the CIA, as it were, to Edwards's FBI.

As if to underscore Mehretu's globe-spanning reach, the largest painting here has the flattened-sphere feeling of a world map, albeit one that seems to be exploding or reassembling itself. At eight by eighteen feet, Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation (all works 2001) establishes the museum scale of Mehretu's ambition. At the same time, its layers of heterogeneous pictorial idioms-bright planar shapes, faint linear architecture, small inky improvisations—seem daunting, glutting. A wall of smaller drawings offered a refuge of sorts. Here Mehretu seems to be rehearsing the miniature incidents from the surface layers of Retopistics: wee explosions, smoke trails, clouds, and cryptic force lines that suggest, as one observer noted, “a coach's instructions for a particularly intricate football play.”

There's a kind of exhilarating clarity to Mehretu's lexicon of forms: You feel she knows what they mean and that she's generating, coding, and distributing them with savvy ulterior motives. As with the best of the '90s surge of rhetorical abstraction (Lari Pittman, Inka Essenhigh, Trevor Winkfield, Matthew Ritchie, et al.), Mehretu's own purposefulness generates trust and carries us a long way into unfamiliar territory. We may not know her developing symbology well enough to read it clearly. At a general level, though, its violence-laden complexity can't help but feel resonant, even prescient. It's easy to imagine Retopistics as a grand multidimensional overview of the campaign in Afghanistan—troop movements, surveillance reports, and financial directives forming a vast, unassimilable meta-configuration.

The flip side of this resonance, though, is that Mehretu's project seems, at worst, to embody a fairly simple, received idea. Back in 1943, when Rothko was painting fractured Surrealist canvases, a bemused Edward Alden Jewell offered the term “Globalism” to evoke their condensation of earnest, post-Freudian complexity. And in its way, Mehretu's painting is a new Globalism—with, say, Rem Koolhaas replacing Freud as the stepfather figure. Like Rothko's, Mehretu's Globalism is polemically complex. Her paintings imply that we live in an ever more intricately linked and interdependent place, a web of shifting connectivities. This is a forceful, sober notion. It's also a truism—borne out by, among other things, Mehretu's own biography. Globalization is the status quo. In making it her subject, Mehretu has proven that she knows how to raise our expectations, but not how to change them.

Alexi Worth