Abstract Critical

Julie Mehretu: Liminal Squared

Written by Luke Elwes


Julie Mehretu, 'Liminal Squared', White Cube Bermondsey, London, 1 May - 7 July 2013. © Julie Mehretu. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy White Cube

Julie Mehretu, ‘Liminal Squared’, White Cube Bermondsey, London, 1 May – 7 July 2013. © Julie Mehretu. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy White Cube

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.

Julie Mehretu, 'Liminal Squared', White Cube Bermondsey, London, 1 May - 7 July 2013. © Julie Mehretu. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy White Cube

Julie Mehretu, ‘Liminal Squared’, White Cube Bermondsey, London, 1 May – 7 July 2013. © Julie Mehretu. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy White Cube

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.

Julie Mehretu, 'Liminal Squared', White Cube Bermondsey, London, 1 May - 7 July 2013. © Julie Mehretu. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy White Cube

Julie Mehretu, ‘Liminal Squared’, White Cube Bermondsey, London, 1 May – 7 July 2013. © Julie Mehretu. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy White Cube

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.

Julie Mehretu, 'Liminal Squared', White Cube Bermondsey, London, 1 May - 7 July 2013. © Julie Mehretu. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy White Cube

Julie Mehretu, ‘Liminal Squared’, White Cube Bermondsey, London, 1 May – 7 July 2013. © Julie Mehretu. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy White Cube

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.

 

  1. Luke Elwes said…

    Sometimes resolution is the intention, at other times not.

    I see her use of grids and gestural markings (two common elements in the abstract lexicon) as deliberately unresolved, in the way that our relation to the virtual world they seek to address is unresolved. This is not an issue that (pre-digital) abstract painting had to deal with. Depending on where you stand in relation to postmodernism (itself an unstable concept), you might see this as extending the terms of modern abstraction or as simply appropriating and replicating its various forms.
    The artist’s statement you quote from refers to another more readily accessible facet of postmodernism: the post-colonial world of complex interactions and hybrid identities (Mehretu herself was born in Addis Ababa and lives in New York).

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      A lexicon! Must mean abstract art is a language after all.

      Or maybe it’s a recipe, and these are the ingredients. A dash of grid with a soupcon of gesture… Ah, I see now, it’s a formula.

      Having actually been to see this show (well it is just across the road) I can only say that it is a formula not to my taste. I got nothing visual, only bafflement – is that the idea?

      • Peter Stott said…

        Just bought a Post-Colonial paint set. Was Alizarin Crimson and now its obtained a hybrid identity it’s?….On the Post-Modern palette? Deliberately unresolved to represent the unresolved, chaos to represent chaos, Robin. Wow. I’ve just spilled some coffee on the floor in ecstasy at this new concept.Eureka! If you do a spidery sketch of a figure it means the artist is a spidery sketch of a human being and if part of it is rubbed out, this represents a faded memory. Yeah, a memory rubbed out by a putty rubber :-).

  2. Peter Stott said…

    …I’d like to qualify my comment on this work. I haven’t seen these works in the flesh, they may be enjoyable to look at. The conclusion:
    “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.”
    To the human cognition, abstract art always was un-resolvable, creating the unresolvable is easy and ubiquitous, how is her work extending that? How is it subverting it?
    Artist statement: “I am interested in the multi-faceted layer’s of place,space and time, that impact the formation of personal and communal identity” Prey to God it doesn’t look like her paintings or that community is in for trouble. Still, nothing wrong with having fantasies whilst making art.:-)

  3. Peter Stott said…

    I see, but it’s hard to see that from the illustrations, some close up pics would help. Seems like art of this type is attempting to put an image to something that doesn’t necessarily have one, like all the cognitive activity around an article on the web. If one could just see all the electricity cables in the world it would look like….or the ‘information highway”. Such art is presumed to be contemporary, but really it’s basically Pollock re-vamped and re-branded for the contemporary market. Pictures are already information-like anyway, for being 2D data, they don’t have to look ‘information-like’ i.e. lots of wispy strands to represent a network.

  4. Peter Stott said…

    De-materialized surfaces?

    • Luke Elwes said…

      …maybe too strong in the literal sense Peter.
      I meant to convey what happens in front of the pictures, where surface areas are either erased entirely or reduced to a ghostly trace. The remaining lines lack material presence and appear to be disconnected from the ground of the canvas – in the same way that lines generated on a white screen have no physical quality.