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Julie Mehretu (b. 1970)
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Julie Mehretu (b. 1970)

Looking Back to a Bright New Future

Details
Julie Mehretu (b. 1970)
Looking Back to a Bright New Future
acrylic and ink on canvas
95 x 119¼in. (241.3 x 302.9cm.)
Painted in 2003
Provenance
Private Collection, Miami.
The Project Gallery, New York.
Private Collection, London.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2009.
Literature
D. Fogle and O. Ilesanmi, Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting, Minneapolis 2003 (illustrated).
K. Harmon, You Are Here - Personal Geographies and Maps of the Imagination, Princeton 2004 (illustrated, pp. 164-165).
Exhibited
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting, 2003, no. 11. This exhibition later travelled to Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art, Buffalo, Albright Knox Art Gallery and Los Angeles, CalArts Gallery at REDCAT.
Aspen Art Museum, Belief and Doubt, 2006.
Oslo, Stenersen Museum, Fresh Paint, 2012.
Special Notice

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Lot Essay

‘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. Like going to see fireworks - you feel the crowd at the same time as you feel the explosions’ (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).

With its sumptuous pyrotechnic eruption of line, colour and form, Julie Mehretu’s Looking Back to a Bright Future, 2003, is a monumentally-scaled example of the artist’s celebrated practice. A catatonic panorama of rich optical splendour, the work engulfs the viewer like a surging visual mind-map. Upon an underlay of precise architectonic markings, Mehretu constructs an explosive cartography, evocative of atlas illustrations, weather maps and ordinance survey contours. A radial outburst of lines, simultaneously signifying glowing sunbeams, military detonation and urban cacophony, creates an interminable sense of depth, a sweeping linear perspective that seems to invoke the new visual frontiers proposed by the master draughtsmen of the Renaissance. 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 soundbite, Looking Back to a Bright Future offers a quasi-apocalyptic vision in which we are invited to glimpse the collision of entire histories and universes.

Inspired by her international upbringing, spanning Ethopia to Michigan and beyond, Mehretu conceives her works in globalized terms, taking the language of architecture and urban geography as inspiration for her tumultuous compositions. The artist frequently cites her residency at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (1997-99) as a turning point in this regard, marking her first use of architectural drawings and blueprints as backdrops for her own personal system of rhapsodic inscriptions and symbols. By the time of the present work, this tendency had become a powerful and sophisticated tool for not only for visual abstraction, but also for social, historical and geographic commentary. Her painterly method is intrinsically bound up with her interests in the structure of communal spaces. ‘At first ... [t]here were a few characters that huddled together and created a community’, the artist explains. ‘As they migrated and mixed with other characters, they made new cities. Eventually a whole terrain would be drawn upon and entangled with a narrative. When that was saturated with drawing, I would pour the acrylic-and-silica mixture of paint over the entire surface. It would dry into a smooth transparent ground that I could draw on, with the previous drawing embedded underneath. This created a stratified, tectonic geology in the paintings, with the characters themselves buried - as if they were fossils’ (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, p. 12).

Mehretu’s teeming pictorial surfaces 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). Ancient civilizations and futuristic empires join hands in Mehretu’s work, which the artist frequently conceptualizes in militaristic terms of mobilized armies, battles won and lost, and worlds on the brink of formation or demise. As the artist explains. ‘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. Like going to see fireworks - you feel the crowd at the same time as you feel the explosions’ (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).

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