Julie Mehretu: about the space of half an hour
On ViewMarian Goodman Gallery
November 2 – December 23, 2020
In this new body of work—actually three different sets of paintings and etchings—Julie Mehretu is inscribing marks from a series of hands: her own, the fingerprints of digital interventions, and even the hand of the Almighty (at least by implication), on a series of roiled and undulating backgrounds. There are a variety of voices collaborating in each work in about the space of half an hour, like looking into a cloud chamber in an effort to recognize the signature tracks of different particles. The artist’s question seems to be, can these voices sing together in harmony, or is it all just noise? These new works explore a new direction for Mehretu: she is pushing away from earlier works which constructed and implied vast spaces—of cities, stadia, and landscape-like vistas—and instead is embracing the space of text or the page. While her marks previously worked in tandem to create structures, they are now on their own: floating and flickering in and out of focus. The lines of the architect and cartographer have become thicker, messier, and more fraught, and the precedents she queries seem meatier as well—she’s moved from the relative dryness of El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich to the indecipherable but captivating lexical works of Cy Twombly and the symbolism of Joan Miró.
There are overarching themes of revelation and apocalypse—the series of seven works made in quarantine during the pandemic are all titled about the space of half an hour, which references the breathless moment after the seventh (and final) seal of heaven is broken and the end times commence. It is this idea of the moment when things fall apart that seems the most concrete linkage amongst the works. The seven works all have a foundation layer based on indistinct photographs which take shape the further back from them you step—but they never appear more than an interplay of fuzzy shadows (perhaps an oblique reference to the shadows in Plato’s cave). A recurring theme is that they utilize source material that is no longer recognizable, but it is hard to judge what effect this has on the final pieces. For example, about the space of half an hour (R. 8:1) 3 (2019-2020) presents a glowing bright white central axis, around which clouds of marks swirl. It is as if Mehretu’s earlier, sober work has been uprooted and her carefully placed marks blown willy-nilly in a maelstrom of destructive energy. In this regard, these paintings capture the dislocation of our times, and perhaps mirror the artist’s feeling of dread and turmoil—something we all share. She is wrestling with the challenge of how to present a chaotic field of data as a narrative of signs and symbols, or, how to read meaning into a constellation of gestures, marks, phrases, and moments.
The second series of six paintings predate the pandemic and are less speculative in their mark-making. Conversion (S.M. del Popolo/after C.) (2019-2020) has at its center a faint but clearly discernible eye. The lines that define the top and bottom edges of the lids cross at the lacrimal caruncle and continue for a ways—thus seeming to reference the early Christian image of the fish. The title references Caravaggio’s dramatic depiction of Saul’s conversion in the titular church’s Cerasi Chapel (1600-1601), which illustrates revelation as a violent transformative event. Hineni II (E. 3:4) (2019-2020) references in its title the words of God emanating from the burning bush and Maahes (Mihos) torch (2018-2019) is the name of the Egyptian god of war. Both paintings utilize intense thick marks against throbbing backgrounds, living up to their forbidding titles. The black shapes in these energy fields are curves and angles, disembodied letters, segments of pixelated forms, over- and underlapped by sprays of color and hand-smeared streaks of ink. If the paintings of about the space of half an hour are frozen in the space of fear, these earlier paintings bristle with emotion.
The four Slouching Towards Bethlehem photogravure and aquatint etchings are similarly more coherent in their lines and are decisive and graphic. The paintings all possess a waxy and perfectly smooth surface that is only occasionally disturbed by a brushstroke or ink smear that appears to sit uneasily on the surface. The prints, on the other hand, are in four parts, divided by the perfectly straight lines between the sheets of paper. This reins in the frenetic impulses of the imagery, literally penning it in, while the matte paper absorbs light and creates a saturated color which moves less than the paintings and appears more of a record of an event rather than a window on actions transpiring in front of the viewer. These prints are eerily reminiscent of Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE) paintings, especially Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Third Seal (R 6:5) (2020). While the titles of the prints are unabashedly and vocally current in their reference to the events transpiring around us, both metaphorically and literally, the paintings are more timeless in that they authentically distill and transmit our unsettled emotions and aspirations through their anger, anxiety, and troubling but sincere despondency.