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 Julie Mehretu  (1970 - )

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Lived/Active: New York / Ethiopia      Known for: Large-scale abstract gestural painting, architectural themes

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Ad Code: 1
Julie Mehretu
from Auction House Records.
Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Ethiopia, Julie Mehretu is an artist who creates abstractions with layer after layer of markings that appear to be fragments of architectural plans.  Her work is related to the Russian movment of Constructivism and suggests the life of a city---cars, people, and buildings.   It reflects much of what she observes from her Harlem studio and home ---"the velocity and fragmentation of modern life."  (Sheets)

To create her pieces she has studio assistants and works with masking tape, light projectors, and architectural plans.

In the winter of 2006-2007, an exhibition of 20 of her works was at the Museo de Art Contemporáneo de Castilly y León in León, Spain, and from October 26 through January 15 of that same time period, she had a solo exhibition at the Seville Biennial.

When she was seven years old, Mehretu moved to East Lansing, Michigan where her father took a teaching position at Michigan State University.  In 1992, she earned a B.A. degree from Kalamzoo College and spent a year studying in Senegal before moving to New York.  In 1997, she earned an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and she spent the year 2000 as artist-in-residence at the Walker Art Gallery in Minneapolis.  She has also spent time in Houston, Texas; and Harare, Zimbabwe.

In 2005 Julie Mehretu was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.



Sources include:
Hilarie Sheets, "Julie Mehretu", Art & Auction, October, 2006
Artnews, November 2005

Biography from Sotheby's Doha:
Magnificent in scope and scale, Rising Down, painted in 2008, is an undoubted masterpiece of Julie Mehretu’s recent oeuvre: a cacophony of color and pattern that is one of the most visually arresting works ever produced by the artist.  A detailed architectural matrix collides with an exquisitely executed cityscape, delineated with extraordinary precision, whilst feathery swathes of black paint co-mingle with an area of vibrantly colored pigment.  The extraordinarily precise draughtsmanship of the background contrasts piquantly with the abstract nature of the paint layers across the surface of the canvas, an unexpected dichotomy of styles that serves to reinforce the artist’s remarkable technical skill.

Mehretu’s painting draws the onlooker inexorably inwards: from a distance Rising Down appears wholly abstract in nature, juxtaposing geometrical shapes against more organic forms.  Yet it is only on closer inspection that the true mastery of the drawing beneath is revealed, unveiling urban architectural elements and metropolitan plans of breathtaking exactitude.  Rows of windows, elegantly constructed domes and tiny columns are all discernible within the plethora of civic minutiae, a web of images constructed with painstaking care.  The result is a tour de force of technical virtuosity; a bravura display of brushwork alongside a stunningly executed line drawing on a truly epic scale.

Mehretu’s remarkable works are inspired by an incredibly diverse range of influences: cityscapes, cartography, Chinese calligraphy and modern master Wassily Kandinsky amongst them.  Mehretu has also spoken of her fascination with the art form of Chinese calligraphy: “There is a definite visual similarity between my brushwork and Chinese calligraphy, as well as a conceptual similarity in the sense that in Chinese calligraphy every mark has a meaning and there is an energy that leads you where you are trying to get to: there is a way to paint the leaves on a tree, the grass on a hill or even the cosmos. In a way, I’m doing that in a more abstract way.” (The artist cited in: Augustin Pérez Rubio, in: "Tracing the Universe of Julie Mehretu, A Choral Text," in: Exhibition Catalogue, Castille, Julie Mehretu, 2006-2007, p. 36).

Indeed, the washes of black across the center of the composition within Rising Down appear to evoke the gestural language of Chinese ink painting, and, by extension, Mehretu’s suggestion of a sense of cosmic import within her work appears particularly opposite in this instance, with the areas of black arguably appropriating the forms of cosmic nebulae or dust clouds.   The kaleidoscope of colors and forms thus takes on even greater significance, suggesting some form of universal titanic struggle: the celestial chaos associated, perhaps, with the destruction or rebirth of an astrophysical phenomena. 

The concept of the ‘music of the spheres’ can be invoked here as well, with Rubio arguing that Mehretu’s works have an inherently melodic structure: “All paintings by this artist can be analysed in musical terms… because the small marks spread out like notes on scores have their own… choreographic quality, moving across the pictures in the form of a fugue, a toccata, or a requiem, each with their own movement and tempo.” (Ibid., p. 36).

Rising Down
can thus be read as a vast symphonic score, a celebration of the unique suspended mental stage suggested by Mehretu’s works, in which various sensations, primarily sound and sight, are amalgamated into one heroic creative Gesamtkunstwerk.  Mehretu's invocation of melody and symphonic cacophony recalls the musical inclinations of her artistic predecessor, Wassily Kandinsky, who famously appropriated musical theory to his painting.  In 1947, Kandinsky remarked, "The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble."

Mehretu also looked to Kandinsky with regard to ideas and depictions of the chaos of spaces, which reference Kandinsky's theories in his 1920 essay "The Great Utopia," where he discusses the inevitable implosion or explosion of our construction spaces out of sheer necessity of expansion. With such informed inspirations, Mehretu is able to successfully reconcile many of the approaches of the past century's artists, uniting physical and sensual expressiveness and socially relevant reflection. 

Cityscapes and architecture have also acted as source of inspiration for Mehretu since the beginning of her artistic career: “I think architecture reflects the machinations of politics, and that’s why I am interested in it as a metaphor for those institutions. I don’t think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space. It’s about space, but about spaces of power, about the ideas of power…” (The artist cited in: Ibid., p. 29).

The association in the artist’s mind of architecture with political power assumes added significance when personal experience is taken into account.  Born in Ethiopia in 1970, Mehretu and her family fled the country in 1977 as the political situation became steadily more unsettled, choosing to live in the United States instead.  Mehretu’s cities frequently appear to be under attack within her paintings, perhaps as an allusion of sorts to the instability of many political regimes in the land of her birth, with works such as Bombing Babylon and Untitled 2 (both 2001) clearly featuring flashes of bright orange flame designating explosives.

Whilst Rising Down is more subtle in its depiction of the theme, there remains a sense of tumult and unrest inherent within the manifold dynamics of the composition.  The vivid red and yellow lines, sweeping across the center of the canvas, suggest the path of a meteor or lightning bolt descending on the world below, whilst the areas of black assume the appearance of drifting smoke.  Yet a careful perusal reveals that the cityscape beneath remains miraculously untouched, as though protected from the turmoil above.  The seeming contradiction is reflected in the title of the work, Rising Down, in which opposite concepts struggle for supremacy, perhaps ultimately cancelling each other out.  The overall impression is one of immense energy and power: a thrillingly visceral experience which simultaneously enthralls and fascinates.  Rising Down masterfully epitomizes Mehretu’s key artistic concerns and ideals, standing as a superb delineation of her utterly distinctive, gloriously evocative, artistic language.

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