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
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.
Hilarie Sheets, "Julie Mehretu", Art & Auction, October, 2006
Artnews, November 2005
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
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).
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
. 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
looked to Kandinsky with regard to ideas and depictions of the chaos of
spaces, which reference Kandinsky's theories in his 1920 essay "The
," 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
Mehretu's key artistic concerns and ideals, standing as a superb
delineation of her utterly distinctive, gloriously evocative, artistic