Los Angeles

Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu’s intertwined compositions in ink and acrylic on canvas, which range from easel size to monumental, are, to use a word that is particularly charged at the moment, explosive. Though shape and color punctuate her paintings, line dominates, defining swirls and sprays that seem to result from a sudden, massive force. Mehretu builds the paintings from misty transparent and translucent layers, each with its own set of marks and imagery—something like handpainted versions of the collapsed strata utilized in graphics and imaging software. They suggest both an endless void and a tangle of information that hovers in a visual, and perhaps psychological, middle space. Earthly and heavenly viewpoints are repeatedly confused.

Mehretu superimposes torrents of wind, rain, and fire—peppered with explosions and plumes of smoke—over hard lines of maps, roadway schematics, architectural diagrams, and other visual intimations of infrastructure and technology. In the midst of all this, sweeping directional lines, which imply gestural marks but often are flatly graphic, slice and swing, as planar and projectile-like forms—some of which suggest airplanes, spaceships, or missiles—crash and disintegrate. Mehretu’s blend of images and styles bears broad reference; her deluges and gales recall Leonardo and Dürer as much as Japanese and Chinese brush painting. Her depictions of architecture filter Greek, Gothic, Romanesque, and Moorish through International Style modernism, while the paintings’ arcs and slashes suggest flight paths and racing stripes as much as expressionist strokes. Her explosions mimic video games, and her flames hot-rod and skateboard graphics. There is also something of the volatility of Goya, while the balance of dynamism and chaos suggests an update of Albrecht Altdorfer or Poussin, as well as Pollock or early Krasner.

Mehretu’s paintings play disturbingly against a backdrop of recent disasters such as 9/11 and the disintegration of the space shuttle, as well as an odd media phenomenon by which we seem to be receiving an architectural tour of the world via reports of violence and war. They reference a globalism that has come to be as much about the proliferation of mechanized warfare and the spread of disease and terror (as well as the so-called war against it) as it has about expanded trade and cultural exchange. But as much as paintings like Dispersion, 2002, with its swooping lines, confetti of fragments, and vague silhouette of an airplane fuselage breaking apart, or Transcending: The New International, 2003, a mélange of maps, plans, and cityscapes all pertaining to the growing pains of postcolonial Africa, might speak very much to, if not of, the current global moment, they also speak more generally, and perhaps more successfully so. Like Robert Motherwell, who attempted to harness Abstract Expressionism to address the Spanish civil war and ultimately succeeded in producing images that powerfully abstracted pressure and tension, Mehretu, harnessing a contemporary stylistic promiscuity, focuses her predilection for wide-ranging reference on the moment at hand while producing images that also seem timeless, alluding to the unending dynamism of civilization’s ups and downs. Mehretu’s is a world in which things fall apart, but also fall together.

Christopher Miles