‘Places like Lagos or Times Square on a Saturday night are completely intriguing to me in their supreme dazzling capacity. I want my paintings to convey and reflect this type of speed, dynamism, struggle, and potential’
(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. 14).
‘[Mehretu’s] paintings ... do not rely on the recognizable but on evocative shards of graphic iconography. 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).
With its pyrotechnic explosion of line, colour and form, Untitled 1 is a mesmerizing early example of Julie Mehretu’s virtuosic practice. Upon an intricate grid of clamouring, cartographic markings, bold geometric forms and linear patterns combine and collide, producing a kaleidoscopic optical effect that draws the viewer into its unchartered depths. Evocative of atlas illustrations, weather maps and ordinance survey contours, Mehretu’s hypnotic interplay of symbols and graphics confronts the viewer like a contemporary hieroglyphic inscription, ruptured and fragmented across the surface of the canvas. Executed in 1999, the work stems from an important turning point in Mehretu’s oeuvre, during which she first began to use architectural drawings, maps and blueprints as backdrops for her visual rhapsodies. Following the completion of a prestigious two-year residency at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, it was during this year that the conceptual foundations of her practice began to solidify. Her graphic explorations became vehicles for social and political commentary, employing a dizzying fusion of visual elements to examine the dynamics and power-struggles that characterise the urban landscape. Dazzling eulogies to the chaos inherent in public spaces, Mehretu’s works became metaphors for social agency, probing the relationship between the individual and the collective that now lies at the very heart of her practice. In Untitled 1, we see the first vibrant strains of this aesthetic burst onto the canvas, inaugurating what has since come to be recognised as one of the most distinctive voices within twenty-first century art.
Born in Ethiopia, raised in Michigan, educated in Senegal and Rhode Island, and now based between New York and Berlin, Mehretu conceives her works in globalised terms, taking cartography, architecture and urban geography as launchpads for her unique, cataclysmic vocabulary. With their layered disjuncture and unbridled energy, Mehretu’s paintings capture the fragmented visual and auditory stimuli of the contemporary cityscape, executed with an all-over detail similar to the sweeping terrains of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Building upon studies of military maps, NFL game plans, airport diagrams and architectural blueprints, Mehretu’s interest in the constructed world is tied to a concern with the power structures that have determined our development since the dawn of civilization. The individual graphic marks that efface the diagrammatic backdrops of her works are imbued with identity and active potential, conceived as characters in overriding narratives of rebellion and uprising. ‘I charted, analyzed, and mapped their experience and development: their cities, their suburbs, their conflicts, and their wars’, claims Mehretu (J. Mehretu, quoted in L. Firstenberg, ‘Painting Platform in NY’, Flash Art, Vol. 35 No. 227, November-December 2002, p. 70). In the optical and spatial drama of Untitled 1, entire histories and universes – tales of conflict and encounter – unfold before our eyes. The conceptual parameters of Mehretu’s practice are mirrored in the multi-layered nature of her technique: an almost geological process of stratification, in which drawings and colour fields are progressively superimposed. The final layer is a transparent coat of silicone and acrylic, beneath which the work is embedded like a fossil.
The art historical canon undergoes a process of genetic mutation in Mehretu’s shattered panoramas. The geometries of Mondrian and Malevich meld with the schismatic linearity of Cy Twombly and the automatism of Surrealist drawing and writing. Citing Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt as important artistic forebears, Mehretu constructs an opulent linear filigree that has often been compared to Baroque altarpieces. The dynamism of Futurist painting is reflected in her bold lines and directional vectors, whilst her formal precision and conceptual rigour prompt comparison with Le Corbusier. Her works draw inspiration from a multitude of graphic systems spanning Chinese calligraphy, graffiti, comic book illustration and tattoo design. Ancient civilizations and high-tech empires join hands in Mehretu’s work, which the artist frequently conceptualises in militaristic terms of mobilised armies, battles won and lost, and worlds on the brink of formation or demise. Her ability to fuse together real and imaginary topographies through diverse visual sources ultimately casts her work as a new kind of history painting – a genre updated for the digital era. As Douglas Fogle has noted, ‘[Mehretu’s] 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). Synthesizing floods of data and images within its teeming surfaces, works such as Untitled confront the rhythms, landscapes and architectures of the contemporary age.