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Mehretu creates fantastic cities at the Marian Goodman Gallery

By William Gutierrez

"Insile," Julie Mehretu, 2013.

Julie Mehretu is a truly international artist. Born in Ethiopia, raised in Michigan, and currently living in New York City as she travels the world for her art, Mehretu allows a wide variety of cultures and styles to inform and inspire her craft. In “Liminal Squared,” her latest show at the Marian Goodman Gallery on W 57 Street, she presents a small number of huge, nonrepresentational paintings that blur the lines between landscape, architectural drawing, and pure abstraction.

"The Round City (Hatshepsut)," Julie Mehretu, 2013.

Mehretu’s paintings are massive, dominating the stark white space of the gallery. Most of the works take up entire walls, although one noticeably smaller piece is only about 5’ by 4’. This size is nothing new for Mehretu, as she is often commissioned to make murals. Considering the amount of building-like drawing that dominates the pieces, each one seems to be a city of its own. With titles like “Beloved (Cairo)” and “The Round City (Hatshepsut)” this theory makes sense. Looking at each one of these massive pieces is like stepping into a new world. After all, the title of her show is “Liminal Squared,” and with the word “Liminal” being a synonym for “threshold,” her chosen title informs her purpose in constructing her works as she has.

The works are full of contradiction—they appear simple yet they are infinitely complicated. They exist almost entirely in shades of grey, but streaks of color occasionally cross the eye. Strokes are both thin and precise and wide and random. One of the common themes through each work is that of layering. The bottom layer is often the most complex, featuring architectural shapes that wind and twist while maintaining a straight-edged precision. Sometimes these forms clearly take the shape of buildings, while other times they appear as rock formations.

The next layer is composed of thick, dark, organic strokes. Present in every work, they are highly reminiscent of ancient Chinese landscape painting. Elements such as the feathered lines, deep black ink, and flowing shapes make these brush strokes just as equally at home in these abstract works as they would be posing as mountains or clouds in a work by Guo Xi.

"Untitled," Julie Mehretu, 2012.

Yet the final layer of Mehretu’s paintings is irrevocably modern. Bold, long rectangles and squat boxes occupy the space in front of all else. Sometimes in black and sometimes in bright technicolor, these shapes add an unmistakable digital aspect directly over something incredibly painterly. This decision makes a powerful statement on the rise of digital art, and of technology in general society.

The mainly greyscale color scheme gives many of the pieces a feeling of gloom, especially in “Untitled, 2012” and “Insile.” Yet this is not a calm gloom, and with so many contradictions and layers at play, the paintings tend to appear somewhat chaotic. This is not a criticism—because Mehretu manages to control this chaos. It is clear that each stroke is deliberate, that each layer is there for a reason. Though her works are non-representational, Mehretu still manages to create a world, and even mirror our own, in each work.



If you go:
Julie Mehretu: Liminal Squared
Marian Goodman Gallery
24 W 57 Street (Between 5th and 6th Avenues)
May 11 – June 22, 2013
Hours: Monday – Saturday 10 AM through 6 PM
Free admission



William Gutierrez is a student at Williams College, and the Arts Editor of the Williams Record.


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