Grey Areas:
Julie Mehretu Retrospective Opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

In her abstract painting of the early 2000s, Julie Mehretu already reflected on issues that are so pressing around the world today: global migration, climate change, the relationship of the individual to the state, of the body to architecture. Now the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Whitney Museum in New York are showing the first institutional retrospective of the artist, who was born in 1970 in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, in the USA. Encompassing over 30 mostly large-format paintings and 40 works on paper, the show traces Mehretu's 23-year career.

Her early works, which she began to develop in 1996, are hybrids of drawing and painting. They deal with different forms of cartography, localization, and marking. Many of these creations are based on architectural forms, grids, or diagrams that capture political events: the movement of refugees, raw materials, or finances. From a distance, they look like imaginary maps that assume very different states of aggregation within a work. These can be filigree ramifications, cloud-like agglomerations and explosions, or sharp-edged geometric surfaces. As you approach, however, you recognize urban ciphers: fragments of buildings. This is the case in Stadia II (2004) and Black City (2007), in which Mehretu takes up forms such as the amphitheater or the Colosseum, where typologies of sports, leisure, and the military overlap. The pictures of the New York-based artist, who emigrated to the USA with her parents at the age of seven, always seem to be suspended, to be in transit. Her works from the 2000s describe a state of "in-between," a grey zone. An example is the painting Berliner Plätze (2008-2009), which was created as part of the commissioned work Grey Area (2009) for the Deutsche Guggenheim and is on loan from the Deutsche Bank Collection for the retrospective. Julie Mehretu erases individual parts of her paintings. The resulting grey blurs are then overdrawn again. This effect has something ghostly about it and at the same time is analogous to real change – and not only in the German capital. In a kind of archaeological reconstruction, the viewer perceives the urban spaces in Julie Mehretu's pictures as dissolving, almost imaginary scenes in which the violence of modernism and the inexorable dynamics of the present have inscribed themselves.

The exhibition at LACMA, which will subsequently travel to New York, ends with Mehretu's most recent paintings, which for several years have detached themselves from their close relationship to architecture, but still address the body and its relationship to state power. At first glance, these colorfully luminous works with their gestural markings and swirls of sprayed color seem like a contemporary response to Abstract Expressionism. Yet they are actually based on media images that have been distorted to the point of complete fuzziness with Photoshop and then painterly reworked. For this purpose, Mehretu selected photographs that stand for the global political situation in an iconic way, including photos of the neo-Nazi march in Charlottsville, children in penal camps on the Mexican border, and the burnt-out Greenfell Tower in London. None of the original visual information is recognizable anymore. It is the colorfulness and dynamics of the motifs that characterize Mehretu's abstract yet investigative paintings, in which these historical events echo eerily.

Julie Mehretu
November 3, 2019 – May 17, 2020
LACMA, Los Angeles

June 26 – September 20, 2020
Whitney Museum, New York

October 24, 2020 – January 31, 2021
High Museum of Art, Atlanta

March 14 – July 11, 2021
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis