The work of Julie Mehretu operates at multiple registers—her paintings are layered, physically and philosophically. They are maelstroms of line, color, and shape, possessing the heft and sublimity of a natural event, at the same time that they are detailed with calligraphic strokes and dotted with fine, arabesque moments. The most comprehensive exhibition of Mehretu’s work to date, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, showcases her investment in the history of diasporac displacement and resistance, and the effects of capitalism and climate change, in works spanning the last 25 years. Many of her works recall systems of surveillance and censorship: often beginning with source material such as photographic documentation, the works also include the black bars that redact, the eraser which elides, the pixelation that blurs. Heneni (2018), for instance, which finds its source material in news photograph of California forest fires and the destruction of Rohingya homes, mimics the effect of the eraser tool in Photoshop by painting over strips of tape, which are later peeled off; screen-printed dots, applied by hand, recall digital blurring. In works like Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts) (2012), abstract lines mark out topographic maps, architectural elevations, as well as, with colored lines which point or connect parts of the painting purposefully, vectors of motion, destruction, power, and red lines of conspiracy.
Mehretu’s work draws from a wide array of recent events, using photographs and documentation from, among other sources, the Arab Spring uprisings and the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of these juxtapositions can initially seem misplaced—how could one possibly conflate a traditional Māori dance with photographs of detention facilities in Texas and California, such as in Haka (and Riot) (2019), especially given Mehretu’s position as an Ethiopian American? And yet, look at enough of these paintings—and this show, which fills the entire fifth floor, certainly gives one enough to do so—and the inevitable fatigue that sets in becomes both revealing and significant. Haka (and Riot) (2019) is worked to the point that their source material, press photographs of detention facilities in Texas and California, is nearly unrecognizable: upon completion, the work consists only of bursts of color and short, broken lines. As in the other large-scale works, the piece is so detailed that one can get lost in the small-scale, individual dramas: the hailstorms of lines, the interloping whorls.
At some point, one has to step back—the details are simply too much to process. Mehretu’s aquatint Six Bardos: Transmigration (2018), a dizzying and intricate jumble of lines and shapes, for instance, blossoms and coheres into an X-like composition when viewed just a few steps back. But is standing back a metaphor for standing down from the very injustices she draws her inspiration from? Isn’t letting the particular become abstract not so unlike the First World’s complicity with wars on foreign soil? There might be manifold pathways of dominance throughout history, but over time they can seem to fall into the same patterns. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Julie Mehretu, Untitled 2, 1999. Ink and polymer on canvas, mounted to board. 59 ¾ × 71 ¾ inches. Private collection, courtesy of White Cube. © Julie Mehretu