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Julie Mehretu’s Back to Gondwanaland explodes outward in an electrifying cacophony of gestural marks and expressive fields of color laid over what appears to be the architectural rendering of a massive stadium. Streaming outward from its dense core like the radiating energy of a nuclear reaction, Mehretu’s masterful composition is structured like a cataclysmic eruption. Dashes, jottings, smudges, bursts, angles and arcs zip across the canvas as if they were tracing sound waves or the trajectory of some unseen motion, while energized fields of red, butter yellow, black and navy collide with soft pink and periwinkle pastels. The painting’s focus constantly shifts between depth and surface with its precisely constructed layers of marks that run over, under and around each other, creating a highly charged and visually arresting composition.
Back to Gondwanaland is a masterful example of Mehretu’s characteristic explorations of the social and geographic terrain of contemporary urbanity, and a cogent consideration of the politics of power at work in the built environment. With their layered disjuncture and unbridled energy, Mehretu’s paintings capture the at-times overwhelming city landscape, replete with fragmented visual and auditory stimuli, and they embody an expanse and all-over detail similar to the sweeping environments of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Viewers of her works are necessarily drawn into the melee as they examine the paintings at close range: “The perception of her paintings is based on simultaneity. Viewed from a distance, everything converges. In close-up, the picture fragments into individual events. As a result, we have to keep moving in front of her paintings, for the process of perception is expanded and enriched enormously by stepping closer and stepping back. The fullness and complexity of these works make them hugely challenging and yet we gladly accept the invitation to immerse ourselves in them completely in order to read them” (M. Schuppli, “Flies in Amber,” in Parkett, May 2006, no. 76., p. 59). Back to Gondwanaland, thus, underscores Mehretu’s skilled ability to capture not only the look, but also the feel and lived experience of a city teeming with vitality and commotion.
Underpinning the dizzying visual power of Mehretu’s paintings is a mature conceptual framework based on the relationship between individual and collective whole. Widely acclaimed for her work’s provocative social and political commentary, Mehretu’s paintings raise questions about how the individual is influenced by the built environment, how the individual acts as a member of a larger community, and how the individual and their surroundings define one another through their interactions. Mehretu argues that conflict and chaos are inherent undercurrents in public spaces, and as such she inserts this tension into the visual abstractions and cataclysmic landscapes in her art. Selecting ideologically charged environments as source materials, Mehretu utilizes architectural spaces such as airports, flight plans, sports arenas, military compounds, skyscrapers and city plans for the first layer of her paintings. “I think architecture reflects the machinations of politics,” Mehretu explains, “and that’s why I am interested in it as a metaphor for those institutions. I don’t think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space, but about spaces of power, about ideas of power” (J. Mehretu, quoted in J. Young, “Layering and Erasure: An Introduction to Julie Mehretu,” Julie Mehretu: Grey Area, exh. cat., Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, 2009, p. 29).
A part of this interest stems from Mehretu’s multicultural background and her resulting awareness of the political issues faced by communities across the globe. Born in Ethiopia, raised in Michigan, educated in Senegal and Rhode Island and with studios in New York and Berlin, Mehretu’s perspective and practice are informed by her broad exposure to multiple cultural and historical forces. In the present work, the painting’s underlying stadium motif suggests large sporting events and its associated connotations of bloodlust and aggression, while its stacked seats, congested design and outwardly radiating structure summon visions of demonstrations, marches, protests and the ability of large crowds to mobilize and demand or enact change. Mehretu conceives of the highly expressive marks in her paintings as the characters in these overriding narratives of struggle, rebellion and uprising, and she imbues them with identity and social agency, envisioning them as partaking in “bursts of cultural resistance amid the ebb and flow of systems and organic orders” (H. Zuckerman Jacobson, “Julie Mehretu: Found Rumblings of the Divine,” in Parkett, op. cit., p. 27). Explaining the markings’ role in her diagrammatic backgrounds and busy cities, Mehretu explains, “I charted, analyzed, and mapped their experience and development: their cities, their suburbs, their conflicts, and their wars” (J. Mehretu, quoted in L. Firstenberg, “Painting Platform in NY,” Flash Art, Vol. 35, No. 227, November–December 2002, p. 70).
In Back to Gondwanaland, we see an entire universe of action and struggle layered, compressed and conveyed through optical and spatial effect, and much of this effect is produced through the artist’s skilled manipulation of her remarkably built-up canvases. After transposing the architectural plans on the initial layer, Mehretu adds strata of drawings and color fields, interspersed with additional transparent layers that give her paintings their signature atmospheric depth. The final layer is a transparent coat of silicone and acrylic, which seals the explosive image behind a smooth surface.
Mirroring the global scope of her practice, Mehretu culls from a wide range of artistic and graphic sources to create her panoramic visions. Citing Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt as important artistic forebears, Mehretu paints works with a level of drama and intensity that has often been compared to Baroque altarpieces. The dynamic paintings of the Futurists are also suggested by Back to Gondwanaland’s bold lines, directional vectors and momentum, and Mehretu’s geometric precision and conceptual rigor prompt comparisons with Le Corbusier and Kazimir Malevich. Other influences include the emotionally charged markings of Vincent van Gogh, the schismatic linearity of Cy Twombly, the automatism of Surrealist drawing and writing, and such graphic arts as Chinese calligraphy, graffiti, comic book illustrations and tattoo design.
With a unique painterly language that pulls from multiple traditions of representation, Mehretu has fashioned a new kind of history painting for the current Internet age. Her method shares similarities with the process of sifting through information online, as she captures “historical, political, and human events by sampling contents and images rather than by presenting examples. By drawing as she does from the deep quotidian wellspring of images and information, her approach is akin to the widespread practice of tapping into the flood of media images and information to obtain raw material for an artistic exploration of our times” (M. Schuppli, “Flies in Amber,” in Parkett, op. cit., p. 60). Synthesizing information from popular culture and contemporary news with a global sense of history, Back to Gondwanaland is an exceptional example of Mehretu’s universally celebrated idiom, and a perceptive evaluation of the longstanding intersections between identity, politics, architecture and power.