Julie Mehretu’s work is a cartography of building and dissolution. In her watercolors, etchings and paintings, she begins with tracings of architectural diagrams, urban planning grids or weather charts. She layers watercolor strokes, colored forms and gestural scribblings over the maps as her own challenge to the structure with which she began. According to the artist, the resulting pieces stand as challenges to the contemporary economic and political powers that be.
Thus, it is especially interesting to note that this past Saturday Sotheby’s sold an untitled 2001 piece by Mehretu at auction for a record price for the artist’s work. It went for $1,022,500, placing her work firmly in the important economic throes of the art world.
Even more revealingly, the auction where her piece was sold last weekend was of the fine art collection of Lehman Brothers, the Manhattan investment bank that filed for bankruptcy in 2008. One million dollars from the sale of the painting is a small step towards the billions that Lehman owes its creditors, but a big deal for Mehretu and her position in the art world. The social irony here is that the art market parallels futures trading in a sense, and Mehretu’s stock is hot and rising.
In addition to the Lehman auction, Mehretu was commissioned to create a large-scale mural for the Manhattan headquarters of Goldman Sachs, she has won a MacArthur Foundation grant, she was featured in the Whitney Biennal and she has a solo show at the Guggenheim in New York through Oct. 6. Important is a weak word to describe her. Don’t let her success go to your head though. One of the reasons for her acclaim is the ambiguity and formal beauty of the creations. The work itself is worth experiencing intimately to interpret it personally.
In fact, Mehretu was quoted in the PBS Art:21 series as saying, “As the work has shifted to being more atmospherical or painterly I refrain from trying to explain what’s going on in the painting as much because they’re not these kind of rational descriptions or efforts to articulate something. I’m not trying to spell out a story … the reason you read the mark is because you also feel the mark.”
A personal reading of the works is facilitated by the organization of her current show at the Johnson, Excavations: The Prints of Julie Mehretu, on display through Oct. 31, featuring smaller works on paper. One of the first pieces in the show is an aquatint and etching, “Diffraction.” My cloud spotting revealed the piece to be a war of fowl, with hawk wings shooting off amidst squawking fur textures and radiating grid patterns. A primal tension pulsates through the abstract composition.
Across the room there are a series of seven etchings displayed together, called “Landscape Allegories 2004.” These pieces lend themselves to that same personal interpretation and ensuing personal allegory. One reads as an explosion which has no center, an effort to map entropy if you will. Or it could be a creature with a nose of clouds, tongue like vines and an ear like a cotton bud unwinding in the wind. See it as you will.
Another work in the series is an outline of a swimming pool with a tornado emerging from the water. Or it is the foundation of an emptied city, left with only the residual smoke rising from the framework. Lower Manhattan after the towers fell, Haiti left in smoke and ashes, every interpretation is pertinent. That surging and crashing of modern catastrophe vibrates throughout the show.
Another etching in the series could be seaweed undulations shooting hundreds of lasers out at other sea grasses while a confetti of bubbles bursts above silk palms thrusting out from clustered roots. Or maybe this is only how a 10-year-old boy and I see it. Maybe an adult would say it is an allegory for violence and celebration blurring into one another.
Other pieces, like the pair “Entropia” and “Entropia (review),” draw heavily upon architecture and its distortions. The solid black CAD lines of the technical drawings contrast with colorful swipes reminiscent of Vassily Kandinsky and Jean Miro.
Mehretu asks an interesting question: Does the architecture temper the wildness or heighten it by contrast? A sense of dislocation and the unreliability of the built world comes into play in this inquiry. Additionally, the use of visible erasure within a map shows how history can be written over and authority usurped.
Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1970 but has lived in America since she was six years old. She considers herself American, with a responsibility to be aware of Western privilege. In this latest turn of events with the Sotheby’s auction, the allegory comes full circle. How fascinating that her work, itself a questioning of economic authority and meltdown, becomes the currency itself that Lehman is melting down for ore. Mehretu asks why it matters to build or rebuild, when destruction is as imminent as the tremors of the earth. Her statement is worth quite a lot.
Original Author: Amelia Brown