“My aim is to have a picture that appears one way from a distance–almost like a cosmology, city or universe from afar–but then when you approach the work, the overall image shatters into numerous other pictures stories and events.” – J. Mehretu
A catatonic panorama of rich optical splendor, Julie Mehretu’s 2003 Excerpt (Citadel) engulfs the viewer like a surging visual mind-map. Part urban planning, part biblical apocalypse, with its title in fact suggesting a spiritual force, this work demonstrates an extensive and heavily-worked fusion of painting and drawing. At once, it seems to unify the mathematical rigor and constructivist logic of a Le Corbusier-like vision with the graphic onslaught and apparent chaos of Leonardo's studies of the Deluge. As the artist has noted in her own words: “My initial impulse and investigation was to try and develop, through drawing, a language that could communicate different types of narratives and build a cityscape, each mark having a character, a modus operandi of social behavior. As they continued to grow and develop in the drawing I wanted to see them layered; to build a different kind of dimension of space and time into the narratives.” (Julie Mehretu, “Interview with David Binkley and Kinsey Katchka”, 28 March 2003, reproduced at Africa.si.edu/exhibits/passages/mehretu-conversation.html)
A rare example of Mehretu’s output from her series of forms drawn and later painted on an immaculate gesso ground, this work is the formal result of a meticulous and painstaking process of the consecutive layering of imagery, map and graphic mark. A combination of architectural drawing, improvised expression and compulsive doodling, Excerpt (Citadel) is a seemingly multidimensional panorama held together by the artist's disciplined and unerring sense of structural logic, into a complex, dramatic but, ultimately holistic sense of epic landscape. Like improvised maps of the contemporary mind, Mehretu's paintings seem, in this respect to also describe the complex and multivalent nature of contemporary urban experience. Fusing the graphic logic of architectural space with the energy and apparent irrationality of the spontaneously made mark, Mehretu has imbued the present composition with a sumptuous pyrotechnic eruption of line, color and form. Upon an intricate grid of clamoring, cartographic markings, bold geometric forms and linear patterns combine and collide, producing a kaleidoscopic optical effect that draws the viewer into its unchartered depths.
On account of their overt ambiguity, Mehretu’s paintings have also been described as “psychogeographies” exploring ideas about location and identity. Mehretu, who was born in Addis Ababa and grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, and sees her work in this respect as being partly “a self-ethnographic” project cutting through her “lineage and ancestry in an effort to further understand the formation of [her] own identity.” (Julie Mehretu, cited in Catherine de Zegher, Julie Mehretu: Drawings, New York, 2007, p. 23)
Upon an underlay of precise architectonic markings, Mehretu constructs an explosive cartography, evocative of atlas illustrations, weather maps and ordinance survey contours. Since the late 1990s, Mehretu has deftly combined multiple graphic languages with her own intricate vocabulary of symbols and gestures in an attempt to visualize the social and geographic networks that underpin contemporary global development. Building upon studies of army terrain maps, NFL game plans, airport diagrams and construction blueprints, Mehretu’s interest in the manmade world is tied to a concern with the power structures that have determined our existence since the dawn of civilization. The individual marks that efface the diagrammatic backdrops of her works are imbued with identity and social agency, conceived as characters in narratives of struggle, rebellion and uprising. Like a densely layered snapshot or sound bite the present painting offers a quasi-apocalyptic vision in which we are invited to glimpse the collision of entire histories and universes.
Mehretu’s teeming pictorial surfaces also represent a tour de force of art historical reference. As opulent as Baroque ceilings and as virtuosic as Sigmar Polke’s wild alchemical experiments, her works fuse the geometries of Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich with the schismatic linearity of Cy Twombly and the automatism of Surrealist drawing and writing. Influences from Le Corbusier to Jackson Pollock jostle alongside allusions to graphic systems spanning Chinese calligraphy, graffiti, comic book illustration and tattoo design. As Douglas Fogle has observed, Mehretu’s ability to entwine real and imaginary topographies ultimately casts her work as a new kind of history painting. “Her paintings ... do not rely on the recognizable but on evocative shards of graphic iconography,” he writes. “She shows us a vision of history as though told through the fractured prism of a Robbe-Grillet novel or projected into a painterly version of the computer game Sim City.” (D. Fogle, ‘Putting the World into the World’, in Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2003, p. 5)
As Mehretu explains, again in her own apt language: “I am also interested in what Kandinsky referred to in ‘The Great Utopia’ when he talked about the inevitable implosion and/or explosion of our constructed spaces out of the sheer necessity of agency ... it is in these same spaces that you can feel the undercurrents of complete chaos, violence, and disorder.” (J. Mehretu, quoted in “Looking Back: Email Interview Between Julie Mehretu and Olukemi Ilesanmi, April 2003”, in Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting , exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2003, pp. 13-14) “Like going to see fireworks–you feel the crowd at the same time as you feel the explosions.”