Through layered marks and shapes, the artist Julie Mehretu constructs dynamic, spatial worlds. Her drawings and paintings reference urban architecture, the chaotic pathways of information technology, flight patterns, and a host of other present-day global phenomena. Mehretu’s work is important to me for how it conflates landscape and formal abstraction, and for how it joins formal rigor with socio-political content.
Mehretu’s piece Empirical Construction, Istanbul represents intimate relations between religion, the corporate world, and state politics. The overall, central mass takes the vague shape of a domed mosque. Rays emanating outward from its peak contribute to this impression, suggesting that the shape represents a holy, powerful entity. The tone and texture of the silhouette is defined through interacting layers: first, a crisp architectural drawing that loosely depicts a cityscape, then squiggly ink marks, and, in the top-most layer, brightly colored geometric shapes and lines. Each layer evokes different associations. Direct, gestural drawing suggests raw human emotion, especially in contrast to the underlying architectural drawing which connotes logic and order. These bottom-most, black and white layers evoke the foundational tension of the human condition—negotiating our raw psychological dynamics within an organized civilization. The brightly-hued shapes, foregrounded and privileged by color, suggest powerful entities. Tellingly, they resemble national flags and polished corporate logos.
Empirical Construction can be read as a stunning abstract landscape, a composition that invites the viewer to optically revel in the active play between color, tone, shape, line, and texture. But the piece doesn’t end there; as is typically the case, Mehretu’s formal elements perform double duty and work on the viewer’s intellect, prompting us to consider political, religious, and capitalist systems of power in our contemporary world.