With Complex Paintings That Offer a 'Nuanced Reckoning' For Our Times, This Survey of Julie Mehretu's Powerful Work Heads From LACMA to the Whitney in March

  • January 04, 2021 13:56

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Julie Mehretu, Retopistics: A Renegade Evacuation, 2001. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 102 × 216 in. (259 × 548.6 cm). Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR; 2013.28. Photograph by Edward C Robinson III

Co-organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, Julie Mehretu is a midcareer survey that will unite more than seventy paintings and works on paper dating from 1996 to the present, reflecting the breadth of Mehretu’s multilayered practice. Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1970 and based in New York City, Mehretu has created new forms and found unexpected resonances by drawing on the histories of art and human civilization. Her play with scale and technique, as evident in intimate drawings, large canvases, and complex forms of printmaking, will be explored in depth. Filling the Whitney’s entire fifth floor gallery, the exhibition will take advantage of the expansive and open space to create dramatic vistas of Mehretu’s often panoramic paintings. The first-ever comprehensive survey of Mehretu’s career, Julie Mehretu is organized by Christine Y. Kim, curator of contemporary art at LACMA, with Rujeko Hockley, assistant curator at the Whitney. The installation at the Whitney is overseen by Hockley and on view from March 25 through August 8, 2021.

Julie Mehretu, Sun Ship (J.C.), 2018. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 108 x 120 in. (274.3 x 304.8 cm), Pinault Collection.

“Few artistic encounters are more thrilling than standing close to one of Julie Mehretu’s monumental canvases, enveloped in its fullness, color, forms, and symbolic content. Mehretu’s conviction and mastery of composition and brushwork—along with the sheer energy and full-on commitment of her execution—endow her works with a life force, presence, and presentness,” said Adam D. Weinberg, Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney. “The Whitney Museum is particularly pleased to co-organize this midcareer survey with LACMA, and we are thrilled to continue our longstanding and close relationship with the artist, who has been included in numerous group exhibitions at the Whitney, beginning with the 2004 Biennial.”

Scott Rothkopf, Senior Deputy Director and Nancy and Steve Crown Family Chief Curator, added: “Since 1948, when the Whitney presented its first retrospective of a living artist, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, we have maintained a strong commitment to providing substantial, in-depth views on the most groundbreaking artists of our time. I am thrilled that Mehretu's show joins a sequence of midcareer surveys in our new building, which has featured Laura Owens, Zoe Leonard, and Rachel Harrison. Taken together, these shows reveal a wide variety of mediums and artistic approaches, but they are united in their emphasis on innovation and their shared concern for giving voice and shape to contemporary experience."

Julie Mehretu, Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson, 2016, The Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles, © Julie Mehretu, photo by Cathy Carver

Mehretu’s paintings synthesize vast amounts of visual information and diverse cultural references, from Babylonian stelae to architectural drawings and from European history painting to the sites and symbols of African liberation movements. Spanning medium, scale, and subject, the exhibition centers her examinations of colonialism, capitalism, global uprising, and displacement through the artistic strategies of abstraction, landscape, and, most recently, figuration. Often drawing upon the twenty-first-century city for inspiration, Mehretu condenses seemingly infinite urban narratives, architectural views, and street plans into single unified compositions. While she employs representational elements through imagery or titling, her work remains steadfastly abstract. This approach, where abstraction and representation commingle within a single canvas or series, allows a simple hand-drawn mark to take on figurative or narrative qualities.

“In their resistance to a single interpretation, Mehretu’s paintings encourage a nuanced reckoning with the true complexity of our politics, histories, and identities,” said Rujeko Hockley, assistant curator at the Whitney. “She often uses art as a means to frame social uprisings, including the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, and Occupy Wall Street, as well as specific events like the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; wildfires in California; and the burning of Rohingya villages in Myanmar. Without being overly literal, Mehretu’s work gives visual form to both the past and current moment. At its core, her art is invested in our lived experiences, examining how forces such as migration, capitalism, and climate change impact human populations—and possibilities. We look forward to bringing her brilliant explorations to Whitney audiences.”

Along with a film on Mehretu by the artist Tacita Dean, the exhibition brings together nearly forty works on paper and thirty-five paintings dating from 1996 onward to reflect the breadth of Mehretu’s multilayered practice. The installation is loosely chronological, beginning with a gallery devoted to works from the mid-1990s, during which Mehretu developed her own idiosyncratic system of notation that includes “characters” such as dots, circles, crosses, arrows, barbells, and even organic forms like eyeballs, insects, wings, and beaks. She began to create drawings and paintings in which these characters gather to resemble migrating masses. In the gallery featuring her work from the early 2000s, Mehretu’s work embraces the monumental scale of history painting as she begins to work in painting cycles, creating loose, interrelated narratives across different bodies of work. The increasingly large and complex visual planes in her work of this period suggest a dense multicultural metropolis, “full of migrants in transit, people walking by, through, past, and with each other.”

Between 2010 and 2016, Mehretu’s visual language began to shift as the artist moved away from the detailed architecture and spectacular colored lines she employed previously. Instead, the works created during this period offer an intimacy and immediacy, with soft distorted blurs and smudges accompanied by gestural, emphatic marks and sometimes even the artist’s own palm prints. The exhibition culminates with a gallery showcasing the artist’s most recent works that explore current events and the unfolding histories that have long informed her practice. The base layers of these works are created by digitally blurring, rotating, and cropping photographs—of police in riot gear after the killing of Michael Brown, for instance, or fires raging simultaneously in California and Myanmar—and then marking over them. Mehretu is inspired by a variety of sources, from cave incisions, cartography, and Chinese calligraphy to architectural renderings, graffiti, and news photography. Drawing on this vast archive, she reformulates notions of how realities of the past and present shape human consciousness.

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