Tracing the City
Julie Mehretus’ Grey Area for the Deutsche Guggenheim
Julie Mehretu is one of the most exciting new discoveries on the young American art scene. The artist, who was born in Ethiopia and lives in New York, engages with pressing issues such as migration and the rapid transformation of cities. Now she has realized a spectacular commissioned work for the Deutsche Guggenheim. Curator Joan Young on Julie Mehretus’ suite of paintings, "Grey Area".
||The term gray area speaks to a condition of indeterminacy, a liminal state in which something is not clearly defined or perhaps impossible to define. Things are neither black nor white, right nor wrong, and in the best of cases, the phrase describes a situation that remains open for discussion. Julie Mehretu adapts such enigmatic circumstances as a tool to engage the viewer in her complex compositions of meticulously drawn mechanical renderings, spontaneous gestural markings, and colorful interjections. For the suite of paintings she has produced for the Deutsche Guggenheim exhibition, the fifteenth in its acclaimed series of commissions, Mehretu also explores the theme of the ruin as an indicator of transformation. These remnants of the past serve to commemorate events but also highlight developments in the present. Mehretu sometimes refers to actual sites of ruin, decay, or destruction in these paintings. At other times she creates the dissolution in the picture herself as she layers drawings such that they obfuscate one another.
Berliner Plätze (2008–09) most clearly captures a specific setting, as referenced in the title and line drawings derived from photographs of late-19th-century Wilhelminian architecture. Yet the dense layering of lines obscures the individual buildings, creating a kaleidoscopic composition of line that destabilizes the viewer’s gaze. Created by projecting historical photos of Berlin onto a canvas and outlining the structural details of the architectural facades, this painting demonstrates the role of photography in Mehretu’s work. The layered imagery suggests double or multiple exposure; the reflections in the upper regions of the canvas recall the inversion of a landscape made by a camera obscura. One might recognize a structure or have a fleeting impression of a familiar locale, but these chimeras quickly slip back into the ethereal world depicted on the canvas. The composition also captures the unsettling nature of the urban experience where block after block of repetitive facades mask the individual lives that are played out behind them—one is surrounded yet often isolated. The individual’s relationship to architecture has long interested Mehretu, who typically interweaves aspects of modernist architecture, city plans, and public spaces such as airports and stadiums into her compositions.
The painting Fragment (2008–09) also captures parts of the urban experience. Layering a variety of streetscapes, the painting explores how city planning frames one’s objective perspective as well as subjective experience of a city. The gestural markings on the surface seem to illustrate Michel de Certeau’s L’invention du quotidien (The Practice of Everyday Life, 1980), which reads the city as a text whose narrative is told by its inhabitants’ paths, with the paintings rendering their activity and energy. Mehretu’s paintings evoke the psychogeography of the city (or the effects of the built environment on individuals), while at the same time contemplating the past and the surviving traces of lived history. Always present is the memory of things past. Yet the images of historic architecture or structures in ruins do not necessarily venerate the past as much as highlight the continually shifting nature of the urban landscape. While the layering and thereby partial obscuring of imagery has been prevalent in Mehretu’s practice as a means of building a composition, in this work and others in the series, parts of the painting have actually been purposefully smudged or erased: Markings and structures seem to dissolve on the surface of the canvas, like a virtual rendering of a fading memory. As indicated by the title of the painting Middle Grey (2008–09), which designates the midpoint between the two extremes of black and white, the compositions often exist at a fulcrum where the work could either enter dense obscurity or almost disappear into an ethereal cloud of dust.
Berlin plays a significant role in the investigation of memory and the urban experience in this suite of paintings. The project was conceived during a residency at the American Academy in Berlin in 2007 and later completed when she established a studio in the city in 2008–09. Walking in the city, where one encounters the vestiges of war in bullet-pocked facades and the damaged spire of Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, an American such as Mehretu might recall that such destruction is currently perpetrated in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. A society at war often does not think of the lasting effects of its actions, and to see memories preserved after decades of recovery is a poignant reminder.
The painting Believer’s Palace (2008–09) addresses these current events. The line drawings in this work depict the partially destroyed palace that sat atop Saddam Hussein’s bunker in Baghdad. Widely published photos of this dilapidated structure belie the preserved condition of the underground military fortification beneath it. Mehretu has long been fascinated with military structures and the influence of military encampments and strategies on the development of cities. The painting Atlantic Wall (2008–09) incorporates computer-generated line renderings of the interiors of bunkers built by Germans along the Western European coastline in World War II. The solid, neolithic structures seemingly dissolve into a tangle of lines and markings. But the flat gray and white forms in the upper-left corner of the surface ground the picture, indicating the solid nature of these concrete structures. As with the gray "ceiling" at the top of Middle Grey, these painted forms help contain the seeming chaos within the images.
A remarkable sense of pictoral space always exists in Mehretu’s paintings, created not just by the layers but also by the contrasts inherent in her works. The underlying compositions of solid forms and precise line drawings counterbalance the more spontaneous gestural markings made by the artist on the surface of the paintings. Different levels of energy denoted by the stable ground of solid forms, the careful, delicate renderings, and the frenetic forces on the surface, are captured on a single canvas. These surface gestures in black acrylic can be detailed and precise or looser, like the quickly drafted scribbles in Notations (2009), to indicate atmosphere or set the mood. As its title suggests, this painting seems to be a diary of unmediated reflections on the work at hand, gathering the energy invested in all of the other canvases into a cloudlike accumulation.
As a final counterpoint in this remarkable new suite of works, the painting Plover’s Wing (2009) also references art-historical traditions as seen in the colorful underlayer, which recalls the abstract compositions and utopian ideals of modernist painting. The plover is a bird that feigns a broken wing, pretending to be easy prey in order to distract predators away from its young and then flying away just before being harmed, and as this work’s title suggests, one might be deceived by a first impression of Mehretu’s works. What appears abstract from afar is replete with detailed drawings when viewed close up, but just as one is able to glean some bit of information by which a rendering might be identified, it seemingly vaporizes into indefinability that requires that a viewer looks at each work again and again and again.