Julie Mehretu

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.

Julie Mehretu,  Empirical Construction, Istanbul , 2003

Julie Mehretu, Empirical Construction, Istanbul, 2003

Possible Painting Statement

Experiencing a painting is akin to experiencing a landscape, at least in how we take it in through our eyes and also through some mysterious emotional or psychological level. Akin, also, in how one can look out into a space and sort of swim in it, get lost in it, without moving the feet. I think this experience is an essential indicator of our humanity, one that slips away as we increasingly experience the world through the mediation of screens.

My paintings are not utopian. To varying degrees, they reflect this ecstatic sense of wonder that refers to my in-person experiences of different natural landscapes, but also, they bring up the more problematic reality of humans’ relationship to landscape today, and how we rapidly digest it through photography. The paintings are peppered with photographic sections and contrast the visual cues of our human interventions--power lines, artificial colors, banal architectural structures--with signs of nature.

I try to imbue my paintings with multiple speeds of digestion. There’s an overall drama, accessible through the image’s reproduction on social media and the internet. Realistically, 90% of the people who see my paintings will encounter them online. But the image is not the painting, it should draw you in, entice you to a slower look, and ultimately reward the in-person perceptual experience the most.

I am deeply influenced by how different members of my family, not to mention my country, possess clashing worldviews. In our divided times, I hope for peace in difference, through empathy. In the paintings, I see the co-existence of formal, dynamic tensions and overall harmony as metaphorical, rendering the paintings ultimately hopeful. Further, by creating a space that feels impossible, like something you’ve never seen before, but that’s believable, I hope my paintings can evoke a critical sense of discovery and possibility.