Artistfacts: Julie Mehretu

Artistfacts: Julie Mehretu

Another female artist, of African heritage that I absolutely adore although her work is so very different than that of Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Julie Mehretu’s works are definitely not  figurative. Her works are elaborate, rich and generally large scale gestural compositions that drawn on the language of European abstraction but insert elements of reality, places or characters, creating very much her own pictorial language. Her works do not show us a recognizable time or place. Her marks include drawn lines, renderings of architectural or urban structures, topographical schema such as city maps or stadiums, layered and seen from various perspectives, dashes, glyphs and what she describes as swarms or massing of small marks. She  builds up layers of acrylic paint overlaid with marks in pencil, ink, airbrushing and what looks like erasure as she progresses with the works.   I am always amazed at the energy and strength I feel when I look at her work from afar and the incredible detail and precision underlaying it when I get in close. Often there is the impression that the works want to explode out of the picture frame.

The narratives underlying the works can only be understood by studying the various layers though hints are provided by the titles.  The artist has described her canvases as ” story maps of no location”  or as ” psycho- geographies”  made as she searched for her identity – culturally, physically, historically as well as as a painter. This search included trying to make sense of, engage with and expand the language of drawing and painting. At the same time she is very  engaged in current events including the political and social reality of the world.  She sees the world as a world in crisis moving faster and faster and that comes through in the explosive movement of the marks on the canvas.  Color is used as a sign or cultural language, linked to flags or corporate logos in the older pieces, blurred photographs embedded into the new ones.



Her more recent work from 2016 tend to be more abstract with stronger elements of landscape. These works seem more frenetic, filled in and less exploded,  with a strong gray tonality and acidic colors as opposed to the more open and light filled earlier works. There appear to be body parts within these newer pieces that hide amidst the chaos of the marks.  A different language is in use, no less personal but  more intimate.




Julie Mehrten was born in Ethiopia in 1970 but raised in the United States from the age of 7.

Gallery representation is White Cube and Marion Goodman.

There is a wonderful interview on The Modern Art Notes Podcast with Tyler Green as well as a video from Art 21.


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