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Julie Mehretu’s Baroque look back

Cay Sophie Rabinowitz enters the interior worlds of the New York-based painter Julie Mehretu and discovers a new contemporary definition of Baroque in her work.

Julie Mehertu, 2005, Photo: Peter Rad

Julie Mehretu’s paintings and drawings involve complicatedly composed combinations. By juxtaposing architectural CAD models, gestural marks and geometric coloured forms, the New York-based, Ethiopian-born artist attempts to translate a dynamic experience of empowerment that is part fact and part fiction, contextualized by history and canonized by dream. Inspired by her family genealogies, documents and news reports from the past that are so much defined by cultural mixing, migration and war, Mehretu looks forward to what could be possible if individuals and masses could design and determine the structures that direct, protect and embellish them. (Read an interview with the artist here.)

At first, Mehretu’s abstraction may suggest an apparent affinity with Surrealist automatic drawing, where gestures, characters and forms are presumed to reveal the particulars of an individual’s personality. In her paintings, these activities and forms are self-contained constructions that develop intuitively, rather like a psycho-geographic experience: everything done with these signs immediately effects what they are supposed to represent. Like in a holographic image, the luminously structured details of Mehretu’s pictures transmit multi-dimensional visual characteristics that deny monoscopic narrative and perspective. She combines linguistic, psychological and historical approaches to culture resulting in a characteristically contemporary baroque oeuvre.

Julie Mehretu in her Studio, 2005, Photo: Peter Rad

The term baroque has often been used to designate a stylistic period of extravagant artificiality and ornamentation in post- Renaissance, Counter-Reformation European art and literature. More recently, it has come to describe particular instances of cultural alterity. Within this discourse, the baroque functions in Mehretu’s work as a trope for a complex ethnic and artistic mixture, rather than as a reference to the European hegemonic conception of the term historical period or iconography. This idiosyncratic contemporary baroque is an emancipating and transculturating one.

Mehretu’s project might seem inconsistent with Counter-Reformation religious fervor, but, historically, the baroque was also a period of substantial cultural transformation, when there were radical changes in conceptions of the subject. It was a period preoccupied with passion, with making the artistic material, whether paint, marble, language, fabric or flesh, yield to signs of emotion, a period of elaborated surfaces heavy with multiple, even contradictory, significations. In this sense, whether Mehretu’s works resist, mobilize or recontextualize the baroque, they seem to have a stake in exploring its potential.

As part of the paintings’ configured relationship of individuals and communities, there are amorphous marks that “signify characters that socialize”, as Mehretu says. These “characters” — Mehretu also calls them her “private urban fighters” – come into the work and build space rather than just inhabiting it. These characters relate to architecture transmorphically: they seem to gather, walk (even march) through walls and pierce foundations. Uncannily, the wire-drawn models never become dismantled or get destroyed; rather structures co-mingle, co-join, and sometimes, if directed by the characters, they might even assume altered states.

Looking Back to a Bright New Future, 2003, (c) Courtes carlier | gebauer

In Mehretu’s painting Looking Back to a Bright New Future (2003) drawings of built environments, such as arenas, public squares and transportation centres make up a primary layer of the composition, but these structures do not confine or contain other elements in the work. In this painting, space and movement are defined by a set of concerns that have already been revised and are being translated. The technique which Mehretu employed for this painting is slightly different from her approach to other works. During the period leading up to the Iraq war, the artist began to reconsider the subject of independence, its forms and consequences. She decided to revisit an earlier work titled Transcending: The New International (2003), a large-scale, colourless painting with swirling shaded areas and moody forms. The layer of wire drawings forming the historical part of this work are based on modernist African city designs that were developed along with African independence movements in the 1950s and have since become decrepit and dysfunctional. Central to this and her subsequent work, Looking Back to a Bright New Future, is the fact that most of the architectural drawings render independence plazas, a key feature of the Modernist African International Style.

Aiming to understanding the dynamic of that complex painting, Mehretu traced the original painting’s groups of characters which, she says, “evolved as the composition developed”. As a map of communities that the characters created around appropriated architectural designs of surrounding independence plazas, it became Mehretu’s source material for Looking Back to a Bright New Future:

Drawings (new constructions) #11, 2003
Deutsche Bank Collection, (c) Courtesy carlier | gebauer

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