"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...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."
At the time, the largest work which Mehretu had completed to date, Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation is among the artist's most important and most ambitious works. The sheer scale and depth of the multiple layers of differently weighted fragile lines and optical colored forms in a range of tones and mediums envelopes the viewer in a mesmerizing synthesis of architecture, history and spatial experience. It treads a narrow line between humming lyrical abstraction and free concept, dwelling on the phenomenon of contemporary existence in many places at once around the globe. At its heart, the work is a stunning amalgamation of seemingly disparately sourced forms laid over a series of airport blueprints borrowed from the world's leading airports which deal with the globalization of experience. Acquired by the present owner in the year of its execution, this is the first time this important work has been offered on the open market.
Developing an interest in the body's relationship to the physicality of her canvases, Mehretu left her Harlem studio in 2001, where she had been investigating shapes of different airport diagrams on modestly scaled compositions. Establishing residency in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, Mehretu transformed a barn into her studio. Working outdoors, without the current comforts of her studio practice, Retopistics materialized through a deeply personal and artistic exploration. Setting into motion the visual language that has since come to define her work, Retopistics offered the artist a platform wherein to explore the notion of space. Here, for the first time, her canvas became an environment where the viewer, aware of the body's connection to the work, could participate in the painting and become immersed within its composition. Offering a striking contrast between the perspectives of both near and far, Retopistics seen as a whole appears abstract, yet when one focuses on the details, narrative elements begin to emerge. Thus, the perception of her paintings became based on simultaneity, viewed from a distance everything converges, while in detail the picture fragments into individual events.
At once daunting and mesmerizing, like an epic tome, Retopistics is comprised of expansive, narrative gestures. It is theatrical; it encourages the eye to travel and asks the body to move closer. An extensive fusion of painting and drawing, Retopistics blends the mathematical rigor and constructivist logic of Le Corbusier, with the graphic onslaught and apparent chaos of Leonardo's studies of the Deluge or Rembrandt's febrile pen-and-ink drawings, and Lichtenstein's comic Pop explosions. Coalescing geometric vectors, graphic brush work, hatch marks, sickle shapes, and dots atop a myriad of detailed blueprints, Mehretu's abstract composition becomes dominated by a complex interplay of precision and pandemonium. Like characters from an incredible chronicle or a collective attempt at social change, the glyphs and cyphers evolve and interact with each other-engaging in space in a very specific way. While some marks are aggressors, some are constructors, others have more universal implications, and still some, the comic explosions, serve as entry points into the narrative. And though her forms often appear to be disintegrated or collapsing, the consistent formal elements create a multidimensional panorama held together by the artist's disciplined and unerring sense of structural logic, in a complex, dramatic, but ultimately holistic sense of the epic cityscape.
As ever, architectural and urban planning designs form the undercurrent and starting point of Mehretu's painting. These plans, selected by the artist, of buildings and structures have immense social, political, and cultural significance as architectural systems and infrastructures that shape our everyday lives. These are structures that channel the flow of human traffic and control the masses either by bringing them together or keeping them apart. "I wanted Retopistics to be made of the conglomerate of all airport plans," Mehretu explained. "As I was looking for them, I realized that the most economically viable countries provide plans for their airports. I found so many maps for international airports in the U.S. and Europe" (J. Mehretu, quoted in R. Marcoci (ed.), Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making, exh. cat. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2007, p. 31). The staircases, too, can be interpreted as spaces of escape. Yet, they also provide depth, as if you could enter the painting. They are places that are constantly moving, folding into themselves. And in addition to transient arenas, where people from different parts of the world conglomerate, Retopistics also encompasses populist amphitheaters and sports stadiums as well as plans for public buildings by architects Bernard Tschumi, Tadao Ando, and Zaha Hadid. The result is a complex aesthetic warp and weft.
Like improvised maps of the contemporary mind, Mehretu's paintings 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 Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation, as its title suggests, seems to describe the unearthing of a matrix-like landscape of thought, time and place.