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 Mehretu’s work conveys a layering and compression of time, space and place and a collapse of art historical references, from the dynamism of the Italian Futurists and the geometric abstraction of Malevich to the enveloping scale of Abstract Expressionist colour field painting.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.
Julie Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa in 1970 and lives and works in New York. Mehretu has exhibited extensively including solo exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2021); LACMA (2019); Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (2019); Serralves Museum, Porto, Portugal (2017); Centro Botín, Santander, Spain (2017); Gebre Kristos Desta Center, Addis Ababa (2016); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2010); Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin (2009); The Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan (2007) touring to Williams College Art Gallery, Williamstown, Massachusetts and North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh (both 2008) Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, Spain, touring to Kunstverein Hannover, Germany and Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark (2006−07; St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri (2005); and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, touring to REDCAT, Los Angeles and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, (2003−04).