Julie Mehretu’s works spring from an interest in systems and serve as a direct response to political issues such as war, diaspora and social protest.
In the four pieces that make up the series Slouching Towards Bethlehem manipulated digital images are combined with Mehretu’s organic strokes, geometric forms and lines. The four large photogravures may be seen as a visual representation of humanity’s attempt at grasping the complexity of a chaotic and fragmented world.
She creates an expression that fuses chaos and order in a structured pattern with loose, abstract gestures. She describes her works as ‘a complex drawn language of marks that behave, battle, migrate and civilize’.
Fantasies and visions
The four works, titled First Seal (R 6:1), Second Seal (R 6:3), Third Seal (R 6:5) and Fourth Seal (R 6:7) refer to the seals that are broken in the Biblical Revelation of John. Each piece speaks of a time of turbulence and upheaval, with a global pandemic and the massive Black Lives Matter movement. Against this background, Mehretu depicts a trail of city plans, demarcation lines and traces of population migration in the form as lines, signatures and a swarm of flighty marks.
The Biblical inspiration is not directly evident but creates an obvious opening for reflections on the ‘non-depictable’ aspects of post-war Western modernism. Although Mehretu does not belong to the modernist era, she contributes to the debate about how we can portray horrors and the inhumane.
Art historical and personal references
Julie Mehretu generally works with large-scale paintings, often created with multiple layers of acrylic paint and subsequently marked with lines in pencil, ink and wide paint strokes. Her abstract landscapes contain references to art historical movements, such as the Italian futurists and the abstract expressionists’ ‘colour field paintings’.
Her paintings fuse different patterns and forms to create what she calls an ‘in-between place’, where new things can arise in a jumble of control and intuition. Born in Ethiopia, she came to the United States as child with her family after Ethiopia’s civil war – a significant shift that is reflected in her art. She regards her art as an ‘in-between place’ where she can establish meaning for herself.
About Julie Mehretu
Julie Mehretu (b. 1970) was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but now lives and works in New York. She has a bachelor’s degree from Kalamazoo College, Michigan, and a master’s degree from The Rhode Island School of Design from 1997. In 2005 she received the prestigious MacArthur Award. Mehretu was included in Time Magazine’s list The 100 Most Influential People of 2020.