Museu de Arte Contemporanea de Serralves / Porto
& Centro BotÍn / Santander
 
Julie
Mehretu
 
Text
Benjamin Weil
Artistic Director, Centro Botín
 
<!-- ----- chapeau ------ --> <span class="chapeau">The Museu de Arte Contemporanea de Serralves and Centro Botín present “Julie Mehretu: Palimpsest,” a major survey exhibition of works by an artist who is undoubtedly one of the most important of her generation. Four works on loan from the Pinault Collection, including the iconic <i>Invisible Line (Collective)</i>, play a key role in conveying the extraordinary quality of her work.</span> <!-- ----- texte ------ --> <div class="clearfix"> <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>Emerging on the New York art scene in the mid-1990s, Julie Mehretu was able to immediately rekindle a dormant interest in painting. This is perhaps because she was one of the very first artists to use this traditional media to depict the complexity of our contemporary world, profoundly transformed by the advent of Internet; a world where time and space have been completely reconfigured, where the “here and now” is constantly augmented by the stream of data coming at us from all directions, at an increasingly accelerated pace. We can now know, in real time, what is happening across the globe: newsfeeds and other types of information sources constantly reshape our comprehension of the world and our perception of space and time. This ever more connected world is also increasingly dematerialized. <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>This somewhat overbearing presence of the news, in fact, plays a key part in the way Mehretu elaborates her work. A keen listener and reader, she keeps abreast of the comings and goings of the world and collects emblematic images, which often become a source of inspiration, if not directly a base for the creation of a new piece or series of works. For instance, her most recent output, exhibited last fall in New York, relates to the destruction of Aleppo. This physical erasure of an entire city—an immense humanitarian disaster—is both an event that has had dramatic effects on the lives (and deaths) of tens of thousands of people and an extremely powerful and symbolic demonstration of power. Yet for most people on the planet, it has only materialized as images, and in that sense lacks concrete materiality. Similarly, for <i>Mogamma</i>, a quadriptych first presented at documenta in 2012, Mehretu used an image of Tahrir Square, the emblematic place where the first upheaval in the Middle East took place in 2011, marking the beginning of what the Western world refers to as the “Arab Spring.” So, in a way, it is as if this recent cycle of works concludes the story of the rise and fall of a moment, during which it was thought that popular strength would overcome authoritarianism. <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>Julie Mehretu views architecture as an epitome of the social order. Buildings not only are the places where most human activity is carried out, they are also symbols of power, in that they are often erected as monuments of sorts. They tend to mark the identity of a city, or to glorify a political figure, regime, or corporation. Likewise, the city is a space where buildings are torn down to be replaced by others, where the state of architecture and urban planning is in constant flux. The intricate layers of Mehretu’s painted work echo both this flux and accumulation of historical markers, which continue to be recontextualized as the life of a city evolves over time. <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>Together with the artist, the curators Suzanne Cotter and Vicente Todolí have chosen to title their survey exhibition “Palimpsest.” While this word primarily refers to manuscripts, it is often used in architecture to describe the state of a building that undergoes changes over time, wherein traces of earlier construction partly disappear beneath the new. Palimpsest, in that sense, perfectly describes the work of an artist who creates a dynamic with what is revealed and what is dissimulated in her paintings. <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>Architecture frequently appears as a base in Mehretu’s often oversize—if not monumental—canvases. The buildings somehow function as the foundations for her elaborate constructs, in a way reversing the usual order of things in architecture. Meticulously drawn onto the surface of the canvas, the plans or silhouettes of buildings then bear the various types of marks the artist applies to her work. In earlier works, colored geometric forms and lines were emphasized; as in recent works, a more monochromatic palette of greys dominates, as the artist seems to explore texture in a somewhat more lyrical fashion. The architecture also tends to be subsumed; perhaps covering the architectural references with abstract cloud or smoke-like patterns refers to both the destruction of architecture and its loss of prominence as a key marker, as it is replaced by other, more virtual icons. Some of the marks applied on the canvas evoke a more primitive type of inscription, akin to ancient cave paintings. In that sense, it is interesting to note that cave painters used to execute their work on or around the ones of their predecessors… again, a palimpsest of sorts. <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>One of the highlights of this exhibition is undoubtedly <i>Invisible Line (Collective)</i>, a gigantic work commissioned by the Pinault Collection and conceived for Punta della Dogana, the Venice landmark built in the late seventeenth century as a new and improved customhouse of a then-booming international center of commerce. Renovated by Tadao Ando in the early twenty-first century to house the Pinault Collection, this building exemplifies the palimpsest or layering that occurs in some buildings over the course of time. The monumental proportions of Mehretu’s work—347 × 759 cm—are indicative of the artist’s interest in confronting the compelling central exhibition space, a cube of extraordinary dimensions. The painting is replete with architectural references to Venice, the very place it was conceived for, thus reinforcing its permanent tie to the building where it was first exhibited. <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>Together, the four paintings on loan from the Pinault Collection provide an interesting perspective on the way Julie Mehretu’s work has evolved over the past five to six years. Becoming increasingly gestural, the work has also become more abstract and monochromatic, although some also signal the return of color in the artist’s palette. </div>
 
Julie MEHRETU<br> <i>Stelae 1 (Nu)</i>, 2016<br> Ink and acrylic on canvas — 304,8 × 365,8 cm
 
Julie MEHRETU<br> <i>Heavier than air (written form)</i>, 2014<br> Ink and acrylic on canvas — 121,9 × 182,9 cm
 
Julie MEHRETU<br> <i>Chimera</i>, 2013<br> Ink and acrylic on canvas — 244 × 366,5 × 5 cm
 
Julie MEHRETU<br> <i>Invisible Line (Collective)</i>, 2010-2011<br> Ink and acrylic on canvas — 347,3 × 759,5 × 5 cm
 

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