A Brief Look at Julie Mehretu’s Acclaimed Practice

Artsy Editorial
May 19, 2015 7:46PM
Myriads, Only By Dark, 2014
John Berggruen Gallery

In her large-scale paper works, Julie Mehretu explores architecture, mapping, and urban landscape: all pertinent themes, given that the globetrotting Ethiopian-American artist was born in Addis Ababa, studied in Dakar and Providence, was artist-in-residence in Harlem, and lives in Berlin. Through May 16th, her work is on view at San Francisco’s John Berggruen Gallery.

Mehretu knows a thing or two about coming and going, and about the experience of looking back on a place once you’ve left it. She’s described her work as “story maps of no location”—images of places that she can’t name or point to on a map, but that are embedded in her mind nonetheless, overlapping with the memories of other places where she’s lived, worked, and traveled. What is memory, anyway, her layered abstract works seem to suggest, but a dense and shifting collection of sensory impressions? And what is a city, any city, but a beehive whose form is only perceptible from far away, whose scale is only comprehensible when you’re looking back through the airplane window?

Untitled, 2006
John Berggruen Gallery

“The narratives come together,” says Mehretu, “to create this overall picture that you see from the distance. As you come close to it... the big picture completely shatters and there are these numerous small narratives happening.” The small narratives being, of course, the individual life, the solitary apartment, the streets you walk between your building and the subway station. In layer upon layer of these urban narratives, overlaid with architectural views and street maps,  rendered in watercolor, graphite, ink, acrylic, aquatint, and spit bite, Mehretu builds the works that have garnered her accolades from a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” to an American Art Award from the Whitney.

Mehretu draws from a diverse range of artistic and historical influences to craft these unique portraits of contemporary city life. Apart from the clear connection to Abstract Expressionism, her work has been frequently associated with the Futurists, Eastern calligraphy, even graffiti—and like Mehretu herself, who’s traveled with her work in recent years biennials from Sydney to São Paulo Art Biennial, from New York to Istanbul, these paintings don’t stay in one place for long.

Bridget Gleeson

Julie Mehretu: Paintings & Works on Paper” is on view at John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, Apr. 9–May 16, 2015.

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