Published October 21, 2003 in South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Julie Mehretu was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Michigan, was trained as an artist in Senegal, Michigan and Rhode Island, and now lives in New York City. Mehretu’s paintings, 12 of which are on display at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art, carry us on journeys even more far-flung than the artist’s travels.
These are not placid voyages to places we might actually visit, but dynamic, pulsating adventures that thrust us into the center of whirling vortexes and along hurtling diagonals, catching us up in the sweep and scope of history. Mehretu uses a language of artmaking that combines abstract shapes and lines with recognizable imagery, such as maps, architectural forms and representations of the elements (flames, clouds and wind).
Her goal is to render records of recent events in personal and expressionistic terms. While her work draws inspiration from a number of Russian artists — among them El Lissitsky and Wassily Kandinsky, who were among the pioneers of early 20th century abstraction — Mehretu’s work is wholly 21st century. It boasts a quasi-cinematic grandeur (think sci-fi movies) and a multilayered complexity which, though done by hand, evokes the computer-generated imagery of our technological age.
Each of Mehretu’s works offers a different experience when viewed from different vantage points. From a distance, one perceives the overall composition (the massing of shapes, marks and lines) and becomes absorbed in the dynamic thrusts and counterthrusts. Most often, a series of straight or curving lines (and, in the case of the 12-foot-wide Dispersion of 2002, a single, thin, black arching line) lead our eyes across and deep into the picture space.
Our bodies literally and figuratively follow. As we step closer to the works, we are dazzled by the variety of the drawn and painted lines and shapes, which play against one another in myriad ways. Lines drawn in ink may be thick or thin, solid, dotted, striated or stippled. Some sit on the surface, while others are seen through a silicone layer, which gives the paintings’ surfaces a waxy appearance.
Embedded within the captivating visual appearances of these works is the artist’s message. The exhibition brochure tells us that the painting Looking back to a bright new future (2003) “contrasts Third World optimism with discouraging realities.” This work takes as its subject Brasilia, the federal capital of Brazil, which was designed between 1957 and 1960. Instead of becoming a great modernist city, it has become a sterile government center and slum. In the painting, urban plans and building models for Brasilia (as well as an imaginary rendering of the Tower of Babel) are superimposed upon a colorful, maplike form. All of the lines and shapes seem at once to converge at its center and to fly apart, representing simultaneously the city’s hoped-for unity and promise and the shattered dream.
Even if the city or geographical area Mehretu seeks to address in a particular work is unfamiliar, her interest in recording the tides of civilization comes through. It is conveyed through the evocation of map and/or landscape, the architectural fragments, the suggestion of flame, cloud and explosion, and the expressive use of abstract forms. These elements join together in dynamic wholes to present history paintings for our time.