Moving through a range of historical and aesthetic modes of exploration for her most recent exhibition at White Cube in London, artist Julie Mehretu has offered a new fold in an already complex and multilayered body of work. Her new exhibition, which opened just this past month, brings together a diverse and challenging arrangement of pieces that sees the artist mining contemporary image archives and newspaper headlines for her grounding material, a mode that moves beyond her prior practice and into new ground.
Mehretu’s pieces have long functioned along an axis of abstraction and architectural embellishment, constructing densely layered networks of gesture that seem simultaneously deliberate and free-flowing. Yet these images were also distinctly free of easily read referents or contexts, rather, delving into the classic “art for art’s sake” exploration of the canvas that serves as hallmark of so much of her historical forebears. Here, however, Mehretu has instead turned towards contemporary reference points and, more specifically, photographic documentation of recent crises and global conditions: rallies of independence in Catalonia; the voracious wild fires of California; the violent white supremacy rally and counter rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; the instantaneous outbreak of Muslim ban protests throughout the United States; and the Grenfell Tower fire in London, each of which serve to define a distinct point of cultural collision in a fractious modern world.
Mehretu, beginning with these images, blurs the surfaces and then airbrushes its shadowy stand-in onto canvas as an abstract departure point. Reduced to a background haze of color, each painting is then built up through an extensive, intricate layering process using screen printing, ink and acrylic marks which are drawn, painted, airbrushed or erased. The original image, now just a blur, is metaphorically nuanced and elliptical, existing as a ghostly background presence whose visible highlights and eruptions of color on the canvas surface pronounce moments of action and possible shifts of force and movement.
It’s a particularly resonant approach, and one that speaks to both the state of modernity, and to its residents. While the images of violence and cultural clashes show spaces where power is used and abused, Mehretu seems to offer multiple options in a single movement, blurring the meanings and symbols of these struggles into a space for new interpretations and gestures. One can read them as a willful obfuscation of the tribulations of the modern world, or perhaps a passionate disregard for the bleak condition they so often imply. For the artist, one can take these moments as a site to recharge and rebuild, or perhaps to depart entirely from the limitations of the modern political situation around the globe.
Her work is on view through November 3rd.
— C. Reinhardt
Julie Mehretu: SEXTANT [Exhibition Site]