Julie Mehretu makes large-scale, gestural paintings that are built up through layers of acrylic paint on canvas overlaid with mark-making using pencil, pen, ink and thick streams of paint. Mehretu’s work conveys a layering and compression of time, space and place and a collapse of art historical references, from the dynamism of the Italian Futurists and the geometric abstraction of Malevich to the enveloping scale of Abstract Expressionist colour field painting. In her highly worked canvases, Mehretu creates new narratives using abstracted images of cities, histories, wars and geographies with a frenetic mark making that for the artist becomes a way of signifying social agency as well suggesting an unravelling of a personal biography.
Mehretu’s points of departure are architecture and the city, particularly the accelerated, compressed and densely populated urban environments of the 21st Century. Her canvases overlay different architectural features such as columns, façades and porticoes with geographical schema such as charts, building plans and city maps and architectural renderings, seen from multiple perspectives, at once aerial, cross-section and isometric. Her paintings present a tornado of visual incident where gridded cities become fluid and flattened, like many layers of urban graffiti. Mehretu has described her rich canvases as “story maps of no location”, seeing them as pictures into an imagined, rather than actual reality. Through its cacophony of marks, her work seems to represent the speed of the modern city depicted, conversely, with the time-aged materials of pencil and paint.
Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa in 1970 and lives and works in New York. She has exhibited in several important group exhibitions including ‘Poetic Justice’, 8th Istanbul Biennial (2003); Whitney Biennial; São Paolo Biennial and Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (2004); the Biennale of Sydney and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2006); Prospect 1, New Orleans (2008); ‘Automatic Cities’ MCA San Diego (2009); ‘From Picasso to Julie Mehretu’, British Museum, London (2010) and Document XIII, Kassel (2012). Solo exhibitions include Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; REDCAT, Los Angeles and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (2003); St Louis Art Museum (2005) and MUSAC, Léon, Spain (2006); ‘City Sitings’, Detroit Institute of Art and ‘Black City’ Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark (2007); North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, (2008); ‘Grey Area’, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin (2009) and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2010). In 2015 she was honoured with the US State Department's 'National Medal of Arts'.