Julie Mehretu (2013)

Over the last decade, Julie Mehretu has become an art world star, her work shown at The Whitney and Guggenheim (New York and Berlin), purchased by MOMA (and prominently displayed near Barnet Newman’s obelisk) and fought over by collectors, one of whom even took her New York dealer to court after being denied ‘first refusal’ on a new picture. Now White Cube in Bermondsey, in conjunction with Marion Goodman Gallery in New York, is showing a quartet of monumental new works (Mogamma: A Painting in Four Parts), fresh from last year’s dOCUMENTA 13, alongside some pieces made earlier on this year.

Her work is being increasingly cited in the narrative of 21st Century painting – particularly by American curators and museums – as representing a sensibility and practice that’s both postmodern and post-abstract (even while it continues to reference the language of modern abstraction). With their multiple viewpoints and multiple visual languages, her paintings represent the protean complexity as well as the dematerialised nature of our speeded up urban world, its digital trace increasingly obscuring the physical architecture that still lies beneath it. Mogamma is everywhere and nowhere, a polyglot postcolonial multiplex, simultaneously interconnected and decentred. The manner of its making is also multiple: dependent on the skills of the illustrator and architectural draughtsman, the printmaker charged with colour schemes and the sander and polisher hired to produce the final ‘super-cool technical surface’. Alongside this technical fabrication (and the rapid rate of production it engenders), Mehretu filters her evolving images through the computer screen, a seemingly continuous process of correcting, adding and erasing her carefully layered creations that make the image’s final state all but impossible to locate.

Mogamma overlays a place (a government building in Tahrir square) with an idea (a communal arena containing diverse beliefs) and ties them to a moment of violent disruption. Through this multiple lens Mehretu references – both compositionally and metaphorically – the past, present and future. The architecture functions as both historic space and compositional grid; the haptic markings, random ink rubbings and ghostly erasures, replicate the strategies of high abstraction as well as symbolically disturbing the once classically ordered city square (the locus of authority and control); and floating above it all, like a plethora of web maps, her bold smooth lines and free floating shapes serve both to energize and disrupt any single reading of her ‘vertiginous panoramas’, suggesting the instantaneous connectivity, the dizzying complexity and disorientating noise, of our digital world. This is no longer a space or place but a stream of disembodied moments, an indelible trace on the future.

She amply displays that condition identified by David Sweet in which the abundance of graphic detail generated ‘in an era of high definition (one made possible by the technical & digital means at her disposal)… appears to be an increasingly important, even essential part of a contemporary pictorial strategy’. But while she evidently abjures the reductive impulse that runs through the lineage of a certain kind of abstraction, she retains through her layering, her ‘emergent algorithms’, both the formal device and generative potential of the grid and the gestural markings that came to typify other recognisable strands of abstract painting.

Her layered and dematerialised surfaces appear to connect to the physical world but seek only to reference rather than embody the material world and, in their intricate tracery, have no interest in engaging with ‘the thickness of existence’ that Mark Stone identifies as essentially lacking in our screen-dominated lives. There is little visual reward for those like Stone who are ‘drawn again and again, to thickness, to volume, to interior spaces’: no accretion of paint or material resistance, no unexpected tension or granular disturbance, nothing in fact to give the eye traction as it glides restlessly over the polished surface. Even the frenzied drawing is smoothed out, rendering it less a nervous bodily impulse as an encoded reference to human action. The layering diminishes rather than enhances any spatial dynamic, while the interference of one with another appears simultaneously arbitrary and too carefully controlled. The scattered lines, bold and colour-coded, suggest points of entry but start and finish nowhere, like so many dead ends. There is no narrative, only a profusion of details and cursory fragments that frustrate the viewer’s impulse to seek coherence or wholeness. Mogamma is a depthless virtual space that’s visually unsatisfactory when regarded through the traditional prism of abstract language.

But in another sense this is to deny the alluring power (as well as the unavoidable sense of recognition that Sam Cornish identifies) of its luminous white surface, one born out of ‘the glow of the screen and the infinite-shallow space’. The Mogamma quartet – ‘liminal squared’ in the gallery’s terminology – is a domain that does not respond to clear narrative reading or continuous time. Through what Brian Dillon identifies as her ‘increasingly atomised & aerated surfaces, the seeds of an as yet unfulfilled future’(1), Mehretu proposes that we realign our habitual terms of reference, reformulate our visual response, to recognise (or imagine) the as yet unfamiliar contours and nascent language of our accelerating urban world, with all its distracted energy, temporal slippages and nebulous structures. The material fabric beneath it has not disappeared from view; it recurs and repeats in increasingly attenuated form, but its relation to the virtual, to the ‘infinite-shallow’, remains undetermined. Her space (or non-space) is deliberately problematic: inherently un-resolvable and visually unstable. Whether or not we choose (depending on our chosen terms of reference) to regard this as extending, subverting or simply playing with notions of abstraction, it represents the future – or, perhaps more accurately, the present version of the future.

1. Brian Dillon, ‘An Archaeology of the Air’ in Julie Mehretu: Grey Area, Deutsche Guggenheim exhibition catalogue, New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2009.

Other quotes are from the artist

Julie Mehretu: Liminal Squared, White Cube Bermondsey, 1 May – 7 July 2013.