Julie Mehretu’s Intensive Cartographies

Approximately eight by eleven feet, Julie Mehretu’s three separate pieces of her Stadia series seem to emanate, each from a slightly different center, with international flags and corporate logos traveling with packs of gestural lines and marks upon almost invisible renderings of stadium architecture. (see Figures) One can easily understand the metaphor of a stadium as a place where people gather to experience emotional and chaotic spectacles of struggle, often with winners and losers.

Stadia I Mehretu, 2004

Ink and acrylic on canvas 107 x 140 in.

Stadia II Mehretu, 2004

Ink and acrylic on canvas 107 x 140 in.

Stadia III Mehretu, 2004

Ink and acrylic on canvas 107 x 140 in.

Julie Mehretu, an Ethiopian born visual artist, was raised Michigan. While in college she briefly took leave of Kalamazoo College to study batik dying in Senegal which ignited her interest in becoming a professional artist. She had always been gifted at drawing, but it was when she enrolled in the MFA program at the Rhode Island School of Design where she developed her style. (Chua, 27) Given her history one can begin to understand the motivation behind the scintillating tracings of trajectory which have become the focal point of her work.

Julie Mehretu once said of her work in an interview with Laurie Firstenberg in 2002 that her abstract marks on canvases stand for a language for characters—also depicted by marks—that retain a sense of agency. She implies that these marks stand for people and things as they are in a process of becoming with their environment. Mehretu thinks of her work as charting the experience and development of these characters, both living and inanimate. To bring her characters into contexts of time and space he began to include architectural plans and historical drawings to create a metaphoric, intensive view of time. (Firstenberg, p. 93)

Mehretu’s multilayered line drawings compiled of prints, acrylic and ink, produce a sense of how complex landscapes or architectures comprised of multivalent combinations of actors and actions happening simultaneously at multiple sites might be understood both intellectually and affectively. As one spends time with her work, one derives an expansive sense of the time present in making Mehretu’s work as well as the time the artist intends to present through the work. Her canvasses integrate dynamic flows between multiple existences resulting in evocations of potential along with tensions lying unresolved in two dimensions. Mehretu incorporates iconic detritus that serves to give a frame of popular consumer culture, such as distorted logos, graffiti and comic book graphics recalling both the past and the present. (Chua, 26) One can also note numerous echoes of fine art in her work as it is imbued with a history of both traditional Nihonga conventions of Japanese painting and Duchamp’s painting of movement, as well as the abstracted affects of Kandinsky.

Mehretu’s use of visual elements seems very similar to Deleuze’s appraisal of Nietzsche’s use of aphorism in his essay Nomadic Thought. Much as Nietzsche’s work inserts a frame to draw attention to all that lies beyond it, her work reaches beyond this frame and beyond the frame that would be the border of the work to draw on the viewer’s experience that is evoked as one interprets her work. When Deleuze speaks of Nietzsche conjuring the intensive by using aphorisms of and symbolic names of those who mean something in relation to the history of thought, Mehretu does also with visual evocations of styles from aesthetic history. Mehretu’s work can also be related to Deleuze’s intensive as it employs an actualization of suspended virtual potential both in the world and in the work, though remains virtual in possible re-interpretations existing in minds of viewers.

Mehretu’s work could be understood to explain through visual means that space equates to time and movement. In her work, every site is a meshwork or rhizome of actors’ movements, preferring potential and flow to stability. Mehretu’s paintings could be viewed in terms of Deleuze’s crystallized time-image—a form of temporality that accounts for time that splits the present into two trajectories, “one of which is launched towards the future while the other falls into the past. Time consists of this split, and it is … time, that we see in the crystal.”(Deleuze, Cinema II, 81)

In 2005 art essayist Lawerence Chua said of her work “At the heart of Julie Mehretu’s paintings is a question about the ways in which we construct and live in the world. Perhaps that is what makes the work so radical: its willingness to unravel the conventionally given answers about the violent environment we inhabit today.”(Chua, 26) Here one can understand Mehretu to problematize humanity’s interaction with themselves and with their world in a push to re-evaluate how we live, which in Deleuzian thought is one of the most important undertakings with which an artist can engage.

B.Paris

Chua, Lawerence. “Julie Mehretu.” Bomb. New Art Publications, Inc. Vol. 91, Spring 2005.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Masumi. University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema II: The Time Image. University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Firstenberg, Lauri. “Towards Abstraction: Indeterminacy and the Internationalisation of Julie Mehretu’s Painting.” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry. University of Chicago Press. Issue 14, Autumn/Winter, 2006.

Tomkins, Calvin. “Big Art, Big Money.” The New Yorker,  Volume 86.6. Conde Nast, March 2010.

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One Response to “Julie Mehretu’s Intensive Cartographies”

  1. Dear friends.
    I’d like to get a permission to publish Julie Merhetu Stadia I in our architecture magazine ERA21 to accompaign an interview of Marcela Steinbachova with Aaron Betzky. Could you please contact me if you can help me?
    Many thanks Zuzana

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